"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, April 10, 2009

Failure of Short Run Strategies in Long Run Arguments

There's plenty of evidence that politically active people interested in fighting climate change think very differently than scientists who are also interested. I also think they are getting it wrong.

This is in my email from Gore's "We Campaign".
Dear Michael,

I asked Troy Galloway -- a former steelworker who now builds wind turbine blades -- to share his story. Congress needs to support more opportunities like this and revitalize the economy.

- Cathy

---------- Forwarded message ----------

From: Troy Galloway
Subject: Worst day of my life

The worst day of my life was when I got that pink slip. I expected to work in the steel mill until the day I retired, and then suddenly my job and my livelihood were gone.

Then in 2006 a wind turbine company opened two plants near my home in Hollsopple, Pennsylvania. Today, I build the blades for wind turbines that are powering parts of America with clean electricity.

A clean energy job saved my family and me, and many more in my community. But with the current economic mess, even some of my smartest and hardest-working friends here are still struggling -- as I know millions of Americans are.

That's why I am asking you for help.

We need millions more green jobs -- like the one that saved me -- all across the nation. And those jobs will only be available if our leaders in Washington take bold steps.

Please sign the petition to our leaders here:


Here's what the petition says:

"Congress must support bold national policies this year to transition to a clean energy economy and help solve the climate crisis. We urge you to cap carbon pollution to help create the jobs and businesses that will Repower America."

I'm hearing some talk on TV about how we can't afford to deal with the climate crisis and the economic crisis at the same time. Well, my experience shows we can't afford not to. The green jobs that reduce carbon pollution are this country's ticket out of a deep economic rut.

I hear that we lost half a million jobs last month. Imagine if those laid-off workers could turn in their pink slips for jobs in wind, solar, clean cars and green technology.

Well, our leaders in Washington have an opportunity to deliver green jobs like these to cities and towns all across America.

Send them a message today:



"Well, my experience shows we can't afford not to." Um, no it doesn't. It indicates, perhaps, but it doesn't prove anything. It's a datum, not a proof. There is a huge difference. (Then there's that "well". Well, that reminds me of Ronald Reagan, and if you'll recall, that's where our troubles really started. )

Is this a bad approach? I think so; in fact I think it's dreadful. Even if it doesn't strike you as reprehensible to argue in this anecdotal way, consider the strategic implications of this tactic.

It alienates people who think quantitatively in favor of those who don't. In the short run that may be enough, but this isn't a short run decision. Engineers and MDs and corporate mangers can be forgiven for having their BS detectors go off, when the arguments they see are the arguments of BS-vendors. And while in the short run such people can be overwhelmed, they have long-run influence in their communities and associations that matter a great deal.

So even leaving aside the ethical problems, I don't think that this tradeoff is a winner in the long run, and that may have something to do with why, despite having the truth on our side, we are not winning in the long run. We don't have to win a battle. We have to win every battle. Getting a bill passed is a trivial matter. The public must be won over overwhelmingly.

Anyway, Mr. Gore wrote an excellent book called The Assault on Reason. It's peculiar, because this campaign has me strongly inclined to recommend to Mr. Gore that he read it.

Mr. Gore, in his disastrous his-to-lose-and-actually-lost Y2K campaign, showed that his capacity to connect with the experts in science and policy was not matched by his capacity to connect with experts in politics. He is listening to the worng people again.

While the left worries about winning battles, the right worries about the war. The field of play in this game is not symmetrical; the tools of reason win in the long run while the tools of polemics work in the short. For advocates of sane policy to exclusively use ancedote in favor of analysis abandons the terrain of advantage and limits the battle to places where the advantage is with the oppposition.

The implicit idea that the purpose of pushing sustainability is to support employment has no fewer than five problems
  1. It is not logically supported in arguments made in its favor. For all its supporters know sustainability costs jobs. Certainly the idea that it is a net economic benefit in conventional terms (neglecting externalities) is unlikely.
  2. It abandons the far more important and susbtantiated argument of externalities.
  3. It totally abandons technically sophisticated opinion leaders like engineers and doctors, who will see through manipulation and be inclined to presume there are no better arguments to offer if nothing more is offered.
  4. It totally abandons addressing the question of sustainability in economics, failing to draw attention to the underlying problem of the growth imperative and how to overcome it.
  5. It continues the assault on reason, weakening collective reasoning.
This approach may just be enough to win a round given the support of the Obana administration. But a round is not enough. The population needs to be won over permanently and decisively. A narrow legislative victory will accomplish very little in the long run; perhaps it will hurt more than it helps.

The author of the above communication has been nominated as an undersecretary of DoE. I have been unable to track down Cathy Zoi's biography, but it's hard at first glance to see how that nomination is a good thing, given that what is valuable about DoE is science and technology, and what needs to be excised is the excessive tendency toward posturing and spin.

Maybe this is intended a concession on Obama's part to Gore's constituency, but I'm concerned that this doesn't speak well for either of them.


Anonymous said...

Anyway, Mr. Gore wrote an excellent book called The Assault on Reason. It's peculiar, because this campaign has me strongly inclined to recommend to Mr. Gore that he read it.

Ha! I've thought much the same thing. There is a bizarre disconnect on what is and is not effective messaging and dissemination of knowledge. I can only assume that he has farmed out his We campaign to a traditional advertising/publicity firm. They're following the same wrote fomulae as every other "Action Campaign!" in my inbox.

I have been unable to track down Cathy Zoi's biography

According to her Facebook account, she's a fan of the "Pickens Plan" which isn't a promising sign.

I suppose I will put the question I was going to ask in the other thread to you in this one:

Do you think that the economic growth vs. sustainability argument can be won on timescales conducive to implementing sufficient climate mitigation strategies (or the other relevant looming crises: topsoil erosion, fishery collapse, fresh water availability, etc.)?

If no, does that constitute a scenario in which the stakes are high enough to permit "bending" the truth?

I think the answer is "no" to the former. I take no position on the latter- although I absolutely agree that it's in our best interests to secure a victory in public opinion that is robust to electoral outcomes.

But then aren't we talking about the following scenario:

A complete overhaul of not only conventional wisdom regarding growth in the field of economics, but forcing that recognition through the political class and/or public opinion. This without the benefit of the currently recognized experts in the field itself, a paucity of time to do so, and doing so against a background of nearly unrivaled economic anxiety/vulnerability.

What do you suppose would happen to the global markets if President Obama announced that he would in essence be seeking an end to economic growth unbound by the constraints of the biosphere? Or a similar announcement by the G20?

Put in the parlance of our times- is limitless growth economic thought "too big to fail"?

If so, what then?

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...


"I can only assume that he has farmed out his We campaign to a traditional advertising/publicity firm."

That'll suck.

* * *

Michael Tobis:

"While the left worries about winning battles, the right worries about the war."

Um, the Right™ doesn't seem to be worrying about anything. It's more like a train that's careened out of control and is headed to goodness knows where, and is causing an insane amount of noise and collateral damage in the meantime.

I mean, come on. Republican politicians keep going 'I'm sorry, Rush.' Monckton speaks of "Osamabamarama". Roy Innis says that during the presidential campaign McCain could've called Obama by "his name -- Hussein". Swift Boat smearer Marc Morano starts a new web site to spread global warming inactivism. He, along with Bjørn Lomborg, Christopher Monckton, Steve Milloy, etc. keep going around challenging Al Gore and John Kerry and Rajendran Pachauri and whoever else to debate on global warming, while they whip up an army of sock puppets to cheer themselves on. The "International Climate Science Coalition" is a mindless meme spamming shop. Wingnuts yammer about Obama's teleprompter, and Obama giving the British Queen an iPod, and Obama penalizing rich people at AIG, and "going Galt".

And the latest move? Oh, the Orgone Petition, with the word "CATO" in big honking letters at the bottom.

lolwut? lolwut?!?!?!?!?

None of these make any sense. They're just zombie tactics.

So why are they working?

Or are they working? Former AIGer Jake DeSantis's letter was quickly drowned out by a pile of angry replies. Nobody except wingnuts cares about Obama's teleprompter. "Going Galt" is a joke.

Surely there's a something special about the issue of global warming that's making the issue more amenable to zombie tactics (in contrast to the stuff about AIG fat cats, Obama's teleprompter, etc.). What is this special thing? How does one overcome it?

-- bi

thingsbreak said...

Since this seems to be a thread about challenging preconceptions and our own (or at least others') blindspots-

From Freddie DeBoer:

We’ve lived through an era filled with belief in a kind of magic, a belief held by many who would consider themselves the most rational among us. This belief held that unlike every other system we’ve ever devised for understanding or moving through the world around us, the capitalist enterprise had within it a kind of perfection. Not that many would be so crude as to say that capitalism had no victims, although occasionally you heard just that from the more rabid of the Ayn Rand crowd. But many have and continue to talk about the great engine of currency exchange and private ownership as a self-regulating, self-repairing vehicle that, left to its own devices, will proceed inexorably closer to security and abundance towards all.

Replace "the capitalist enterprise" with something along the lines of "['X branch of' or academic] science", "of currency exchange and private ownership" with "peer review and publication", "security and abundance towards all" with "more accurate and usable data for society" and do we have something interesting or not?

I can't make up my mind. Some things Bora was twittering about sparked this.

Also consider how "mainstream journalism" fits into the analogy, with "reporting and editorial oversight" and "a factually-informed public" rounding things out.

Anonymous said...

And (although I assume it was understood here, as in life generally) ignore the part about Rand entirely.