Archive for February, 2011

“Pop” goes the “Population Bomb”

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Feb. 28, 2011

Forty years ago I was teaching high school science in Wisconsin (I am getting really shamefully old). When it came to most big science and society issues I taught the conventional wisdom. My students learned, for instance, that overpopulation was without question the most serious problem the world faced.

In those days my wife and I would sometimes watch Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show after getting the kids to bed. One of the more frequent guests was the biologist Paul Ehrlich. He was one of the most famous gurus of the day, basking in the popularity of his recent best-selling book in 1968, The Population Bomb. His first sentence set the stage and the tone. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

He went on to claim that India was a basket case. It could never feed its growing population. Starvation was the only answer. There was nothing we could do, except triage‑—watch them die. In one of the later chapters he speculated that if we want to avoid that fate in this country, one solution might be “compulsory birth regulation … (through) the addition of temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired family size.”

In 1973 Ehrlich doubled down on his predictions, in an article in Progressive Magazine, predicting that 65 million people would die of starvation in the United States by 1990. His math was close. As it turned out, about 65 million people in the U.S. were on diets by then.

Ehrlich was not alone. The late David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director, said that childbearing should be a “punishable crime against society.” Prince Philip, past president of the World Wildlife Fund, said, “If I were to be reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to the earth as a killer virus, to lower human population levels.” John Holdren, present science advisor to President Obama, suggested reducing population by “compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion.”

On a related issue, Ehrlich also predicted on the first Earth Day in 1970, that, “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.”

In other words the conventional wisdom was that the “overwhelming majority of scientists” saw overpopulation as an “unimaginable catastrophe” for the human species (and the rest of the living world as well).

Ehrlich (by training an entomologist, not a population studies expert) and his friend, John Holdren (Obama’s science czar today, whose specialty is plasma physics and aeronautics, not ecology), invented a special equation in honor of that first Earth Day.

Their equation was simple. I = PAT. “I” stood for environmental impact. “P” for Population. “A” for Affluence and “T” for Technology. In other words as people get more numerous, get wealthier and use more technology, the earth suffers. We should strive to have fewer people, less affluence and less technology. That would seem to me to be a call for less prosperity and more poverty.

Their alarm (and sad to say, my teaching in those days) had consequences. One of my former students on her wedding day told me that she did not plan to have any children. I politely asked why not? She said, “Oh gee, the world is so full of people and pollution, I don’t see why I should add to the mess.”

Today most experts in population studies have changed their mind. The population bomb has gone “pop” and, if anything, we have the opposite problem, too many elders and not enough youngsters. In developing countries populations are still growing but the rate of growth has drastically slowed and the confident expectation is that once they reach a decent living standard, the rate will decrease still further as it has done in all industrialized countries.

In Europe, Japan and North America the problem is too many old people and not enough young workers. In many ways that is the harsh demographic reality giving fits to some of our current problems.

Protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana are prime examples. Sounds great to retire in your fifties with a generous pension and wonderful health care. But it also means more young people will have to work that much harder (or more efficiently) to support you for the next thirty to forty years. Demonstrations against raising the retirement age, some of them violent, in the UK, France and Germany are ongoing.

As I have emphasized before, resources and wealth are not like a large pie where if one gets more, others will have to make do with less. In a win-win free-market economy, all can be winners—all can gain wealth. But not without working for it. And not all at once. Children, the disabled, retirees can all be supported in our affluent society, but not always at the level they want. The present protests remind me of a Lincoln story.

After hearing he had won the election to be president of the United States, he walked to his Springfield home, trying to keep peace between his two boys, Willie and Tad. His neighbor heard what she later described as a “terrible row.” She put her head out the window and shouted, “Why, Mr. Lincoln, whatever is the matter?” Lincoln answered, “Just what’s the matter with the world, Mrs. Browning, I’ve got three walnuts, and they both want two.”

Today, of course, the major “world worry” of the same “overwhelming majority of scientists” has shifted from overpopulation to the possibility of catastrophic climate change. I admit the problems are different. But not that much different. Back in the 1970s you would have had a hard time finding “scientists” (or literate citizens) who would disagree with Ehrlich, Holdren, Brower or Prince Philip. Today the common belief is that “the overwhelming majority of scientists” think that global warming is on the way and that, like the population bomb, it will be unimaginably catastrophic.

I have my doubts. So do a respectable number of climatologists, meteorologists and Nobel Prize winning scientists. I haven’t checked the numbers out, but I am willing to bet a higher percentage of “scientists” today are skeptical about global warming, than “scientists” in the 1970s were skeptical about population bombs. Polls show that a majority of literate citizens are indeed more skeptical today about global warming than they were in my day about overpopulation.

What bothers me is that too many young people today will listen to the conventional wisdom, just as my students listened to me. Ideas have consequences, and they are often not what you expect.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail see our newest program, Resources, Populations and Climate Change. You can find it on www.hawkhill.com or on amazon.com.

Freedom, karma, and the Tea Party in Madtown

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Feb. 21, 2011

Our small city made the national news this past week. Madtown (otherwise known as Madison) is overflowing with protesters.  The occasion, as most of you know, is the attempt by our Republican governor and Republican-dominated legislature to change the rules on collective bargaining with government employee unions.

Teachers are outraged. Thousands of them (along with thousands of their students) have come to the Capitol to protest.

Ordinarily I am on the side of teachers, but as a liberal-conservative taxpayer I can also see that the Republican majority has solid arguments.  Sunday I was surprised to learn I had company. A columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, Chris Rickert, is known for his usually staunchly liberal outlook.

In his Sunday column, though, Rickert wrote, “Here were thousands of people happily storming the Capitol to lobby for one of the best-compensated public work forces in the country as if they were something akin to the first black entrants to the University of Mississippi. Here were parents happily submitting to the hassle and expense of three days’ worth of school cancellations to accommodate a group that generally pays nothing into their retirement fund, benefits from an anachronistic two-and-a-half-month-long summer vacation, can retire with a monthly check for life at 55, opposes merit pay and gets off work well before business has wrapped up at the Capitol anyway.”

On the other hand, my progressive friend and retired social studies teacher, Michael Brockmeyer, was a leader of the protesters. He hopes to recall (or impeach) the governor.

Michael and I frequently exchange articles by email. He sends me articles from MoveOn.org, Daily Kos, The New York Times and other left-leaning publications. I send him ones from the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The Heritage Foundation, and other right-leaning publications. Recently, in an interesting switch, I forwarded an article to him from The New York Times and he, in turn, forwarded an article to me from The Wall Street Journal.

The Times article: “FINDINGS; Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” by John Tierney, one of the Times regular science columnists, reported the findings of a University of Virginia social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. His studies show that “social psychologists are a ‘tribal-moral community’ united by ‘sacred values’ that hinder research and damage their credibility—and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.”

In other words, social psychologists (and, by implication, other social scientists and most professors in U.S. universities) are overwhelmingly liberal, and overwhelmingly opposed to conservative points of view.

Michael, of course, disagreed with the methodology and with the conclusions. He sent me, as a follow-up, another article from the same Jonathan Haidt, “What the Tea Partiers Really Want.” (This one was in The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t say, but I assume Michael strongly disagrees.)

Haidt’s work has relevance to the Madtown protests. He points out that the Tea Party (the leading edge of the Republican Party, who are currently having counter-demonstrations in Madtown) usually trumpets freedom as its central tenet. Two of the movement’s leaders, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, in their Tea Party Manifesto wrote, “we just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others.”

Haidt sees the Tea Party as two sometimes conflicting groups—libertarians (who do prize freedom above all) and conservatives (who prize “karma” as their guiding principle). “The passion of the Tea Party movement,” claims Haidt, weighing in on the conservative side, “is, in fact, a moral passion. It can be summarized in one word: not liberty, but karma.”

He goes on to explain that “The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for ‘deed’ or ‘action.’ And the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.”

These two faces of the Tea Party explain why it is opposed to excessive government regulations, high taxes and union shops—they interfere with liberty. It also explains why the Tea Party is opposed to what they consider excessive government bailouts and handouts—they violate karma.

Their biggest conservative beef was not with the Democrats, but with George W. Bush for bailing out Wall Street bankers. The Tea Party faithful think they should have been forced to go into bankruptcy, just as individuals or other corporations have to do when they make bad decisions. Karma plays no favorites.

Their devotion to karma also leads them to oppose government employee unions (they help elect politicians who return the favor by granting them excessive benefits); affirmative action excess (they violate basic fairness standards); welfare programs that reduce incentives for work and marriage (they add to the dependent population and subtract from the producer population); excusing the guilty while blaming the victim (they undermine natural moral laws).  All of these offend their commitment to karma, the “natural law of the universe.”

Studies of Tea Party enthusiasts show that on the median they are above average in intelligence, in educational achievement, in income and, yes, in devotion to freedom as well as “karma.” As mostly middle class workers they don’t resent rich people as such, but they do resent people who get their money from the government in what they see as only too often undeserved loopholes, grants, or “handouts” that have little to do with productive work. (The present tax laws are good examples. Tea Partiers favor a flat tax with no loopholes, no deductions, the same for everyone.)

In the Madtown case, they don’t resent teachers and other government workers. They recognize that they are doing essential work. They do resent any workers who can retire in their fifties with taxpayer-supported pensions and health benefits far superior to the ones they were able to get from their equally productive private sector work. Thus they tend to be strong supporters of Governor Walker and the Wisconsin legislators who are attempting to change the man-made “karmic” rules.

They also are skeptical about the effectiveness of some taxpayer-supported projects. They tend to agree with Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist who wrote, “The assumption that spending more of the taxpayer’s money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse. The black family—which survived slavery, discrimination, poverty, wars and depressions—began to come apart as the federal government moved in with its well-financed programs to ‘help.’”

Tea Party people would agree and, in the present case, might even extend Sowell’s comment to include education expenditures, which have increased dramatically in recent years with no measurable improvement in effectiveness.

Much of this goes back to a News column I wrote back in May of 2010. I called attention then to Timothy Ferris’s new book The Science of Liberty (HarperCollins, 2010), in which he promotes a new way of looking at political labels. He points out that the usual left wing/right wing labels are out of date. They originated in the French Revolution two hundred years ago, when the then liberal radicals sat on the left side of the French National Assembly and the conservative monarchists sat on the right side of the Assembly.

Instead of a straight line with left-wing liberals at one end and right-wing conservatives at the other end, Ferris suggests a triangle. At the apexes you would have Liberal, Progressive and Conservative.

Classical liberals are people (going back to John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine) who lean in the direction of freedom. Progressives (going back to Karl Marx and social-democrats) lean towards equality. And Conservatives (going back to the English philosopher Edmund Burke) lean towards tradition, towards karma.

Like all labels, this oversimplifies. Individual people (and politicians) are always some unique mixture of these three directions. Even though I remain suspicious of all political labeling, the Ferris triangle seems to me more sensible than the traditional left-right continuum. When we apply it to the current Madtown flap we get something like this …

Liberals (classical ones) and conservatives are on the side of the Governor and the Republican legislature. More freedom and better karma. Progressives are on the side of the unions. More equality and better incomes for union members. Who is right? Who will win?

In Wisconsin, traditionally, the progressives have had the upper hand. Fighting Bob Lafollette led the Progressives back in the early 20th century. Wisconsin pioneered in unemployment insurance, welfare benefits and other social-democratic measures.

In the most recent election the Republicans scored major victories in Wisconsin, as well as in other states. Who will prevail in the current tug-of-war-and-words is unknown.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail on the synergy and the conflicts see my well-reviewed program Capitalism and Democracy. You can read about it and buy it on www.hawkhill.com and on www.amazon.com

The Bold and the Beautiful

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Feb. 14, 2011

I stole the headline from the Wisconsin State Journal sports page the day after our Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl. Like all good Wisconsinites I was ecstatic.

Today is Valentine’s Day. The bold and the beautiful, football and love. Hard to beat.

In my youth I studied philosophy in college. William James was one of my favorite philosophers. It was James who claimed that sports were the “moral equivalent of war.” I think he was right.

One of my favorite novels is Lee Smith’s, Fair and Tender Ladies. In one chapter, after making love, the woman asks her lover whether anything else comes close, and he answers, “well, there’s always sports.” I think he is right. (So is she.)

As I pointed out in my News last week for many thousands of years humans have lived in agriculturally based societies. The only wealth they could manage was what they could coax from the land and the animals (including the human ones-that is, slaves, serfs or peasants). The rich were rich because they owned more land and had more animals, including human ones, to work for them.

In these agricultural societies the rich had a few sports like falconry, fox hunting, jousting and fencing. In ancient Greece of course they had wrestling, boxing and Olympic sports. And in Rome they had the famous Coliseum battles and circus extravaganzas. The peasants, serfs and slaves in all of these societies had some leisure time but not much, and for the most part they had few sports. Men sometimes had archery, horsemanship and other war and hunting related sports competitions. Among aristocrats, the warrior class-knights in shining armor-was the most prized, the most richly rewarded, and probably the most prolific. They were also the biggest risk-takers and the most likely to die in frequent wars with neighboring kingdoms or tribes.

Since all of us today are descended from these agricultural-age folks, we still have built into our genes and our memes a goodly mix of character traits that make for a lively sports scene-and also, unfortunately, a propensity to settle disputes by fighting. In particular most males have inherited a medley of traits that were valuable in disputes and in wars. Things like aggressiveness, speed, boldness, strength, quickness, decisiveness, endurance, and desire for adventure and risk-taking. These happen to be the same traits that the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers had in such surplus last week. They are also the same traits that lead to success today, not only in sports, but also in business and social situations.

Some intellectuals may not want to admit it, but attractive young women also prize these same traits. The old song from my day “you’ve got to be a football hero to get along with a beautiful girl” was only too true then, and I suspect is still true today. In my day sports were more limited in variety for both participants and fans. In my family we would listen on the radio to the football games of Notre Dame, the baseball games of the Cincinnati Reds and the boxing matches of Joe Louis.

Those three sports-football, baseball and boxing-were the big deal then, and almost the only big deals for players and for fans. Professional sports existed but fans were few and far between (except maybe for boxing, baseball and horse racing). The early Green Bay Packers of Curly Lambeau days got $200 a game. And they had to pay heir own expenses!

Our high schools did have football and basketball teams, but that was about it. Tennis, golf, bowling, swimming and ice hockey were important to some people. Mostly people who were well-to-do.

Today for “football hero” in addition to the sports already named you could substitute any of hundreds of others: like bike racing, NASCAR racing, skiing, rowing, bow hunting, horseracing, volleyball, rugby, curling, wrestling, gymnastics, soccer, cricket, marathon running, skateboarding, Ironman, Frisbee golf, Ping-Pong, snowboarding, extreme fighting, waterskiing, lacrosse, even poker, pool and chess. You name it, there is a following of participants and of fans. You name it, aggressiveness, risk-taking, endurance, speed and strength pay off. As Damon Runyon put it, “the race is not always to swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

Today it is true that intellectual skills like proficiency in science, mathematics and verbal jousting are also prized. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the founders of Google, Facebook and YouTube get monetary rewards far in excess of Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger. These intellectually favored people are also not deficient in aggressive talents, just as modern sports stars are not deficient in intellectual talents. For the most part the overwhelming majority of the general population prefers athletic achievement over intellectual achievement. No matter how sincerely leaders strive to promote the latter, the acclaim for a Nobel Prize winner, a 4.0 grade average or a local Science fair winner pales in comparison to the acclaim for a Super Bowl ring or the winning touchdown, basket or goal in a high school tournament.

Some decry the large amounts of money that reward men (and recently women too) who exhibit these aggressive traits, whether in sports or business. Such objections cut little ice with sports fans, with voters, with investors, or with attractive women. Sorry, but that is just the way it is. The challenge for peace-loving aggressive-averse people (including myself) is to hope we can channel aggressive traits into their moral equivalent, sports, rather than into fighting and war. In the inevitable case where war does becomes necessary, so long as we continue to nurture the aggressive traits with athletic competition we will still have the power to prevail.  In the inevitable case where economic competition is necessary (which is pretty much always) we will also have the power to compete and to win.

Of course there is a saving grace here-remember that in a free-market economy, unlike in sports events, the basic transaction is a win-win one! (The Pittsburgh Steelers may not find that a comforting thought I admit.)

Have a happy Valentine’s Day. And after cuddling with your sweetie, don’t forget, “there’s always sports.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I don’t really have any video programs glorifying sports or love. On the other hand all of my programs in their subtle way promote morally healthy competition, love of people and love of the earth and the amazing universe that has given us these incredible gifts. See www.hawkhill.com or Amazon.com for a sampling of the range.

“green tip for the day”

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Feb. 7, 2011

In my last News effort I wrote of the good and the not-so-good of religions, supernatural and secular. For supernatural religions I listed Christianity and Islam. For secular religions I listed Communism and Fascism. I left out one of the most popular secular religions today-Radical Environmentalism.

In the senior citizens health center my wife and I frequent, they have an electronic bulletin board with messages changing every day. The one that caught my eye yesterday was the headline “green tip for today.”

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

I thought of that tip while swimming laps in their luxurious pool (not reduced, reused or recycled). Later that same day I visited the Apple Store to buy the new computer (not reduced, reused or recycled) I am using in this blog. The store is in one of our Madison shopping malls and I noticed the same slogan on the wall of the men’s rest room.

It was not that out of place in the Senior citizens center (we seniors are over the hill and have to think more about conserving) but it was jarring in the lush Shopping Mall (young folks should be thinking more about creating the wealth we seniors are trying to conserve).

Mind you, there is nothing really wrong or bad about reducing, reusing and recycling. Insofar as they encourage thrift and efficiency (part of what I call “light green”) they are progressive. But insofar as they promote what I call “dark green,” they are not-so-good. As a matter of fact they are really bad and dangerously reactionary. Let me explain.

Radical Environmentalism on its good side promotes a healthy natural environment, urges us to reduce harmful pollution, leads the way to save wilderness and endangered species, and at its best encourages innovation and efficiency in the creation and use of new “green” technologies.

On its bad “dark green” side, however, Radical Environmentalism urges us to cut back, live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars, travel less, use buses and trains more and automobiles and airplanes less, buy local and shun foreign foods, goods and services, reuse instead of buy new, and in general reduce our consumer-rich standard of living.

Alas, insofar as we follow this advice the national and international economy will suffer proportionately. And seriously. Industries that depend on travel, building, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture-for-export will be devastated. (That includes trade between states and regions if local is interpreted too narrowly.)

Unemployment and welfare subsidies will soar in Japan, Europe and America. Countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, and others that are making rapid progress now, due to their commitment to free-market trade in goods and services, will regress to poverty and political chaos. The only winners are likely to be Radical Islamic groups who can more easily take power and enforce Sharia Law, which bans consumer-rich western life styles. (Dark green critics often sound suspiciously close to Radical Islamic imams.)

I realize that the advice to reduce, reuse and recycle often comes from an honest concern to save the ecosystems of earth. As I wrote in a blog a few months ago the mantra expressing this is “a growing economy means a shrinking ecosystem.” Jeremy Rifkin, one of the prominent leaders of the Green movement, summarized another concern: “The United States, with only six percent of the world’s population, uses over 30% of the world’s resources and generates over 30% of the world’s pollution. … We need a green life style. We need to realize that if we use more of the world’s resources, others will have less. ”

The trouble is, this is faulty science and antiquated economics.

As I pointed out in the earlier blog, ecosystems in rich countries like America and Europe are improving, not shrinking, as the economy grows. And ecosystems in the developing world will improve as their countries get richer.

Rifkin’s summary confuses abundant raw material resources like soil, water, rocks, sunlight and air, with scarce valuable economic resources like energy, steel, aluminum, food, cement and wood. The former are widely available everywhere on earth. The latter require knowledge, technology and skill to produce.

In economics green lifestyle theory is reverting to antiquated zero-sum ideas that were true for ten thousand years (the length of the agricultural age on earth) but have not been true for at least two hundred years (the length of the industrial and scientific age that began roughly around the time our nation was founded).  For many centuries the wealth of the world was like a large pie. Wealth was land, gold and slaves. If one person or group got a big piece, another person or group had to be satisfied with a small one. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose. If “we get more, others will have less.” If that were true (and it used to be true), the only way to increase wealth would be theft or war (and we did have many wars and thefts. Some were called imperialism).

It’s not that way today. We live in a different world. Wealth is no longer land, gold and slaves. It is knowledge, technology and skill. If one person learns something new, if one group perfects new technology, if one group develops new skills, all people, all nations benefit. If I win, you win. If you win, I win. It’s called a free-market capitalist economy. And when linked politically to a liberal democracy we get the best of all possible worlds, free-market liberal democracy. This is sometimes called the western way of life and it is now on the march throughout the world.

Wealth is not a physical commodity, oil, land, iron ore, forests, water, etc. These are important, but by themselves they are not human wealth. Many countries have abundant natural resources but are poor when it comes to human prosperity. Conversely many countries have few natural resources but are rich when it comes to human prosperity.

Examples of rich resources with little prosperity and much poverty would be the Americas before Europeans arrived; Asia before the recent economic boom; Europe in the agricultural ages and before-and today, countries like Afghanistan, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, and most countries in Africa and the Middle East (with the exception of Israel).

Examples today of limited “natural” resources and yet rich prosperity and wealth would be countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Israel, the Netherlands and many other countries in Europe.

This listing underscores the point that land, gold and muscle power do not make a rich country. Nor do oil, mineral resources and forests. A thriving entrepreneurial culture-brains, science and opportunity-however does bring with it wealth and prosperity.

Not surprisingly, this kind of culture also generates enough wealth to support the “light green” goal of reducing pollution, safeguarding wilderness, protecting other species, and improving efficiency. But it may not do so if too handicapped by “dark green” myths and well-intentioned slogans and advice.

Instead of promoting “reducing, reusing and recycling” how about …

renewing, rebuilding and rejoicing

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail on the matter of Natural Resources and Wealth see our newest program,Resources, Populations and Climate Change.