Complex, Critical, and Urgent (1)

Daniel Boone was America’s first Libertarian. Whenever he saw smoke rising from a neighbor’s cabin, he moved his family west. Government wasn’t the problem, government wasn’t the solution – at least until the Indians came a’callin’. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., appointed to the Supreme Court at age 62, once said “In the law, an ounce of history is worth a pound of logic.”

Today’s problems are far too complex, critical, and urgent to be solved by either Libertarians or logic – or even lawyers. We need to use the best science available to design and test government’s moves against present and emerging societal (and planetary) problems. And those sciences aren’t biology and physics. They’re systems theory, systems dynamics, and computer simulation, among others – the whole lot of the sciences developed since World War II. Names like Norbert WeinerJohn von Neumann, Stafford Beer, and Jay Forrester are not familiar to the lawyers who make up the vast majority of legislators and staff on Capitol Hill. Such subjects don’t come up in law school – ever!

Take global climate change (Please!). Last week Steven Pearlstein of the Post wrote a column about the complexity of the Waxman-Markey bill. In it he says:

“There remains a robust argument over whether the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 represents a crucial step in preserving life as we know it. But there is no question that there are few pieces of legislation that are likely to have a more profound effect on the U.S. economy. It would bring about dramatic changes in the relative prices of energy and goods produced by energy-hungry industries. It would redistribute trillions of dollars in business sales and household income and generate hundreds of billions in government revenue. And it would represent the most dramatic extension of government’s regulatory powers into the workings of the economy since the early days of the New Deal.
“For all that, there are probably not more than a few hundred people who really understand what’s in this legislation, how it would work and what its impact is likely to be. As it moves through the legislative process, it’s worthy of closer attention.
“The other thing to say about it is that it is a badly flawed piece of public policy. It is so broad in its reach and complex in its details that it would be difficult to implement even in Sweden, let alone in a diverse and contentious country like the United States. It would create dozens of new government agencies with broad powers to set standards, dole out rebates and tax subsidies, and pick winning and losing technologies, even as it relies on newly created markets with newly created regulators to set prices and allocate resources. Its elaborate allocation of pollution allowances and offsets reads like a parody of industrial policy authored by the editorial page writers of the Wall Street Journal. The opportunities for waste, fraud and regulatory screwup look enormous.”

(Another article in the Post, well worth reading, says “The proposal is far more complex than anything tried before in this country, and a close parallel in Europe turned out to be seriously flawed.”)

I like Pearlstein; I don’t find him an ideologue at all. When he’s nervous, I’m nervous. And the entire column is worth reading – twice. But there’s one sentence that’s entirely wrong: “For all that, there are probably not more than a few hundred people who really understand what’s in this legislation, how it would work and what its impact is likely to be.”

Unless and until someone tells me that there’s a very good simulation model of the US economy, and that Waxman-Markey has been plugged into it under a broad variety of assumptions, I don’t think that there’s ANYONE who understands how it would work and what its impact is likely to be!

Wanna bet? Wanna bet the economy or the planet?

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