27 July 2012

Book reviews, Part 2 of ∞ : The Rational Optimist (continued)

It’s not every day that one reads a review in which a fan of a book pillories that same book. Alas, that’s what I find myself doing here. Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is a wonderful read and I can’t argue with its central thesis, to wit: when ideas are left free to interact (‘have sex’ as he colorfully puts it), they create a wonderful synergy that leads to ever-increasing rates of innovation. This thesis in turn supports his optimism that the human race’s condition is steadily increasing and can be expected to continue improving at ever-faster rates, as long as we don’t stifle innovation.

Stifling innovation is where the stickiness begins, though. Conveniently enough, everything that happens to conflict with Mr. Ridley’s worldview and political philosophy, just happens to be exactly what is worst for innovation (and, by extension, humankind). Anything that runs afoul of his philosophy, which might best be described as an admixture of libertarianism, laissez-faire economics and neo-liberal approaches and attitudes, is perforce bad for innovation and thus quite deadly, to be eradicated as quickly as possible (though apparently not before pausing briefly to subject it to scathing sarcasm and dismissive ridicule). I get the impression that his political beliefs were changed sometime in adulthood and following a period during which he held very different positions, because usually only the converted show such rabidity in their attacks.

But again, despite his flaws and flashes of anger, I think Mr. Ridley is on the right track here, and I fully support his basic theses. But that doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye to his work’s many, many flaws and inconsistencies. They need to be addressed, not to refute but rather to strengthen his overarching argument, because it’s one I wholeheartedly support. We need more optimism in this age of doom and gloom. All this defeatism is just leading to more defeats. We need a reason to look forward to what is in fact a brighter future. I hope that by pointing out where his arguments break down, the central thesis may be more solidly supported in future by employing sounder arguments.

Most of Mr. Ridley’s problems fall into a half dozen of categories: 1) straw-man arguments; 2) deception by averages; 3) self-contradiction, arguing one way to support a point here, then arguing the opposite way to make a different point, creating contradictions along the way; 4) glaring inaccuracies and oversights; 5) conflation/guilt by association used to attack positions (e.g. ‘Hitler was evil and a vegetarian; you are a vegetarian; ergo, you are evil'); 6) blind spots (moral, political, logical) caused by the dogmatic nature of this beliefs. Covering all of these in detail would require that I write a book of my own, but I do want to flag a few of the more egregious issues.

Straw Men of the World Unite! Mr. Ridley needs you! To refresh the memory: a straw-man argument is an oft-employed tactic in rhetoric in which one creates some absurd version of one’s opponent’s position, then attacks that absurd version, without ever having to address the real, original version of the argument, then using that sleight of hand to convince the audience of the absurdity of the opponent’s position. An exaggerated example: I say to you that it’s a good idea to include apples in school lunches, and you refute this position by say something like, ‘So I guess now all our kids are going to be vegetarians! What do you have against the meat industry? Do you realize how many jobs would disappear if you put the meat industry out of business? Why are you anti-jobs, Mr. Hughey?! Stop pushing your radical job-killing agenda on this community!’

Mr. Ridley most often employs this tactic when discussing environmental regulation. He argues against many green initiatives by taking them to the most extreme possible versions, then attacking those extremes. For example, he notes that to move completely away from fossil fuels, the UK would have to take measures that indeed sound absurd (e.g. covering 10% of the land with wind farms and areas the size of Lincolnshire with solar panels). His decision to focus on the UK in isolation makes his arguments even weaker, since the UK is unusually highly densely populated AND is a high energy consumer (giving an energy usage/land area ratio of 1.25 w/sq meter). Folks like Ridley speciously use this outlier as an example of why too much energy per square meter is required to make something like biofuel possible, as it only yields .5 p/ sq meter. If UK is the outlier, why is it a valid example? Yes, if we shut off fossil fuels tomorrow (an absurd notion) and used only current technology (equally absurd given the time frames for transitioning away from fossil fuels) and chose the mix of solutions that would work only in isolation (e.g. don’t put panels on buildings, but take up land dedicated solely to the panels), then yes, that would be nutty….so clearly the entire environmental movement is absurd and can be safely dismissed! Yay fossil fuels! How silly and juvenile. These scenarios he describes remind me of the old adage about current trends: if current trends can’t be maintained, they simply won’t be. If ‘at current trends’ the mile will one day be run in ten seconds, then clearly the current trend won’t prevail! So if with current technology we would one day have to tear up all green spaces to make way for alternative energy production, clearly that will never happen! He’s also rather absurd in his assumption that land area taken up by production of renewables is land area lost to people. It’s not a zero sum game: solar panels can occupy roof tops, for example; wind farms can be put offshore; ocean wave energy plants can be put in areas not readily accessible or even necessarily desirable to people.

      His stance on alternative energy also assumes no progress will ever be made in the efficiency of these sources, so, he seems to argue, why bother with them? By similar reasoning, we should never have bothered with oil or gas, because only deep-sea drilling, advanced extraction methods and (in the case of gas) hydrofracking have yielded the volumes we’re able to achieve today. But none of these techniques existed when we first started getting fossil fuels out of the ground. Only by investing in fossils over many years did we come up with these new techniques.

Inaccuracies. Any book sufficiently dense in facts and figures will inevitably contain some innocent mistakes. To make too much hay out of innocent oversights/errors is to descend into pedantry. But there are cases in Mr. Ridley’s book where one gets the sense that the oversights are almost willful attempts to prop up arguments with convenient lapses. For example, Mr. Ridley is very dismissive of theoretical scientific research and apparently finds it quite the waste of human effort and resources. He claims that all the useful technology in the world has come from practical research carried out with profits and gain in mind. What utter nonsense and bunk. And one needn’t look outside Ridley’s own work to find examples to support that opinion: he talks about the usefulness of the laser, but that device would not have come to be without a solid theoretical basis of work done by people who had no industrial applications in mind. And the modern world Mr. Ridley loves would scarcely even be possible without the breakthroughs of Michael Farraday, a man Ridley conveniently ignores but whose whole life was dedicated to work that can pretty fairly be described as theoretical. Without his work, without his discoveries, we’d have few of the modern marvels we take for granted.

Being a Libertarian, Mr. Ridley also conflates the amorality of market mechanisms with the amorality of its players. I'm a firm believer that markets are among the most efficacious means of achieving goals, but they rarely address the negative externalities  associated with them, so leaving them entirely to their own devices means too many people often get hurt in the process. So by all means, let markets do their magic, but where they fail to address human needs, apply corrective incentives (as opposed to punishments) to encourage better outcomes. Mr. Ridley sees that as too much of an encumbrance to free markets; I say markets aren't infallible gods and we shouldn't worship them as such.

Unemployment is a perfect example of this. The way our market system is set up, there simply can't be zero unemployment. If there were, inflation would soon spiral out of control. So if this imperfection of the market system is undesirable but also necessary, may we not mitigate its impact by helping the poor and unemployed? After all, we owe our prosperity to some percentage of people unable to get work. So why not address this negative externality associated with inflation control? 

I also take issue with Mr. Ridley's view that all government is just some stone around our necks. Through government we can accomplish greatness and handle tasks the market simply won't solve, such as roads, police, education, etc. And despite his silly statement to the contrary, no, 'some rich guy' wouldn't have gone to the moon without there first being a massive public investment in NASA. That was a perfect case of the groundwork needing to be laid by the public so that the private sector could follow. 

Finally, I take issue with Mr. Ridley's anti-tax extremism as it ignores the role taxation plays in leveling the playing field. (Leave aside for the moment the fact that there is simply no evidence that cutting away taxes and regulation creates jobs.) Unfettered capitalism in low-tax environments is leading to ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor that won't just go away and that are holding us back, meaning the optimistic world Ridley inhabits simply can't be maintained if people like him get their way and the gaps keep widening between rich and poor. Mr. Ridley would counter that 'on average', we are all getting richer, but that's meaningless if that average moves up only because the top 1% are gaining much more even as the poorest lose out. If I have 100 apples and you have one apple, and I get two more apples while you lose yours, then on average our little group has gotten richer (going from an average of 50.5 to 51 apples per capita)....but under the circumstances, do you care? Mr. Ridley would say huzzah, we're all richer! I don't buy it. 

So, in conclusion, I think Mr. Ridley's overall message is a sound one and I fully support the idea that innovation is the driver of our better tomorrow. But he is too blinded by partisanship and ideology to see that there are limits to the model he describes and supports.

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