Ev Ehrlich's Everyday Economics


The New Radicalism (II)

Last week, I argued in this space that the Right-ists who believe dinosaurs were late for The Ark have taken on the stance that used to be held by the New Left of a generation ago – they share a fantasy about how the world ought to be, rather than respond to the realities of how the world is at the moment. And today’s progressives have replaced the Nixonian realpolitik – the new “radicalism” is climatology, biology, and earth science. And managing financial crises.

And as if to make my point, I read this week that the Texas State School Board is considering changes to its state-wide history textbooks that would drop Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein from the American history curriculum and replace them with Senator Joseph McCarthy and Phyllis Schlafly. Yes, I have that right. They were going to cut Christopher Columbus and Neil Armstrong, too, but spared them. For now.

As if anything could be more ignorant than the idea itself, consider this argument from a supporter of this substitution, a Mr. Terry Kemple of the Community Issues Council of Tampa who, according to the local Fox affiliate’s reporting, said that “both sides of this issue have an agenda.”

There you have it – science, empiricism, and rationality, and America’s greatest scientist and its most prolific inventor (regardless of whether he messed up the AC versus DC thing) – are not reality to these folks, but an agenda, equivalent to an ideological perspective or a personal belief. Light bulb – for or against? And this isn’t some backwater town somewhere – it’s the second largest state in the country.

This is beyond a political and social challenge for our country, a chilling reversion to fundamentalism. It goes to the very roots of our affluence.

200 years ago, David Ricardo, the British economist, nailed “the trade question.” Even the poorest and most backward countries export something. How do they end up doing so? And, if they're not particularly good at anything, what will they export?

Ricardo’s answer was the “law of comparative advantage,” which says that nations export what they can make “more better” than their trading partners.

Think about it this way. I know a guy who was a big-name cardiac surgeon, but he was also a first class carpenter and cabinet-maker -- he was both a better carpenter and a better surgeon than everybody else. But it’s harder to be a good surgeon than a good carpenter – you’d rather any old idiot (say, me) built you a birdhouse than screwed around with, say, a mole on your shoulder.

So the guy was “more better” at surgery than at carpentry – Ricardo’s law said he should be a surgeon and then pay other people to do his carpentry.

But Ricardo was concerned about trading English wool for Portguguese wine – simple products that were anchored in climate and geography. In today’s world, the “factors” that make goods and services are as mobile as the goods themselves. Capital travels around the world as digital bits. Partnerships, joint ventures, and the transnationalization of companies let almost all of the world’s technology go where it’s needed. The world abounds in smart people with incredible skills, learning, and ability. And today’s goods are obviously richer and more complex than wine and wool.

Economists from Raymond Vernon to Michael Porter have attempted to catch up with these changes, and to summarize, it goes like this; a country has a level of technological and “environmental” competence, where “environmental” refers to the broad array of factors that make a place a good place to get things done – literacy and numeracy, entrepreneurship and incentive, stable economic policy, competent (not absent!) regulation, and so on. This establishes a general level of competence or, as economists call it, productivity, and within that level of competence, the course of history provides a path leading to specific industries.

For example -- the U.S. was an leading auto producer for a long time because the Great Lakes provided a cheap and easy way to get iron ore and coal from one place to another, and then a few remarkable people – Henry Ford, for one – figured out how to integrate a variety of innovations that could be traced back to Alessandro Volta, who laid the basis for the spark plug a century before Ford. When the advantages and innovation came together, a great industry was born. And the auto industry wilted because the Great Lakes cost advantage became less important (and was squandered) and because the industry lost a lap in the innovation race.

All this Ricardian jive helps us understand what’s so chilling about deciding that stories of great innovators like Edison and Einstein aren’t worth passing down to kids. For one, some of the kids exposed to this bizarre curriculum are going to be slightly less numerate, less aware and worldly, less prone to being able to use empiricism, experimentation, and the scientific method to integrate innovations, resources, and a vision of how they add up to new economic activity. That’s tomorrow’s standard of living.

But there are all sorts of reasons why American kids lag the world in math and science — even though there are rays of hope that we’re catching up – and nutty ideas about Joe McCarthy is pretty far down the list. The real danger is that we risk becoming a theocratic culture that first ignores, then degrades, and perhaps one day demonizes the basic building blocks of our prosperity.

Where does this new fundamentalism head? What happens on college campuses when those who learn and teach the rudiments of science – the Big Bang, evolution, Earth science, all of the knowledge that contradicts a literal telling of the Bible’s mythic narrative – find themselves under attack or pressured to compromise their knowledge? If you were working at a Texas university – or Dell Computer in Austin – what would you be thinking right now?

Will the idea that science is “one perspective” or “one agenda” as opposed to a process and technique for learning about the world around us segregate scientists and innovators from the mainstream of society and turn innovation into the object of suspicion or derision?

Will cheerleading for “entrepreneurship” substitute for its irreplaceable complement – technological progress and innovation?

Will the political forces that feed this fire focus it on scientific practitioners? We see that now in areas such as animal experimentation and abortion, but regardless of what you think about those issues or how strongly you agree or disagree, at least it’s (often) driven by concepts of morality that come from the human heart. This new war on science, instead, comes from a shared rejection of reality, from an alternative world that exists in a cultural cocoon.

It’s not a joke. In the old Soviet Union, Stalin found it politically convenient to reject Mendel’s theories of genetic selection and instead decided that acquired characteristics could be inherited. He found a willing accomplice in the biologist Trofim Lysenko, who argued that Mendel was wrong and took Soviet science down a rat hole for a generation. At one point, disagreeing with him became a crime.

Which brings is back to the Texas School Board, which may make it illegal not to teach challenges to evolution, climate science, the origins of the universe, or any other scientific theory for cultural reasons that raise the ghost of Lysenko, and the prospect of the same consequences.

It’s troubling enough that some people find their theology endangered as mankind learns more about the world in which we live.

But it’s even more so when they seek to deny that knowledge and retard our economic progress as a result.


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