THINKING UNDERPINS WRITING—AND IDEOLOGIES SHUT DOWN THINKING
YOU WILL NOT BE SURPRISED TO READ THAT I HAVE NO TIME AT ALL FOR IDEOLOGIES—EVEN IF THE ACTIONS THAT RESULT ARE GOOD.
In that case, I’m delighted with the outcome—but still regard the underlying ideology as undesirable. Our ability to think—to gather knowledge and to reason—is our single greatest asset, so why in hell do so many of us go through life with so much of this extraordinary capability shut down?
If there is one thing that really frustrates me (I should be so lucky that it be limited to one!) it is the automatic assumption that the private sector is automatically superior to the public sector (better known as ‘government’).
I feel much the same about the reverse. I regard ideologies as very dangerous things—and, all too frequently, as excuses for some decidedly unpleasant human behavior. I don’t care whether such ideologies are political, religious, or some blend of both (which is often the case).
Whatever be the situation, all too often, ideologues substitute belief for thinking, and self-righteousness for tolerance, compassion, and social concern. All in all, ideologies have a great deal to answer for. They are frequently imposed beliefs—imposed by circumstances, force, or propaganda.
Ideologies are virtually all hostile—either overtly or tacitly—to those who don’t conform. That’s a pretty unpleasant, arrogant, judgmental, exclusionary attitude just in itself. It is all too common in institutions (using the term in the widest sense).
I am reminded of two great Groucho Marx quotes:
“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”
Does the good outweigh the harm done by organized religion over the centuries? I’m open to argument, but I would find it hard to be persuaded that such is the case. Again and again, one finds that organized religion lies at the root of some appalling behavior—whether it be the Spanish Inquisition or ISIS.
My over-riding concern is always the same: Does it work? Implicit in that question is that its advantages should outweigh its disadvantages, and that the human condition should be advanced in some way by it (whatever it may be).
That said, I have to wonder when it comes to military matters, because whether breaking things and killing people advances the human condition depends very much on your own situation—and, even then, can be problematic. Nonetheless, that doesn’t seem to stop me maintaining a keen interest in the military and in endeavoring to refine my thinking in this area.
Am I being inconsistent—or merely realistic? I’m not entirely sure—but that is an issue for another day.
I recently ran across a terrific Atlantic interview with Bill Gates that dealt with this moronic, “the private sector is always superior,” issue rather well.
Gates, is, of course, pretty much the ultimate private sector entrepreneur, so he has considerable credibility on the matter. He is commendably clear and pragmatic.
The subject matter is ENERGY and the following is just an extract.
On the surprising wisdom of government R&D:
When I first got into this I thought, How well does the Department of Energy spend its R&D budget? And I was worried: Gosh, if I’m going to be saying it should double its budget, if it turns out it’s not very well spent, how am I going to feel about that?
But as I’ve really dug into it, the DARPA money is very well spent, and the basic-science money is very well spent. The government has these “Centers of Excellence.” They should have twice as many of those things, and those things should get about four times as much money as they do.
Yes, the government will be some-what inept—but the private sector is in general inept. How many companies do venture capitalists invest in that go poorly? By far most of them. And it’s just that every once in a while a Google or a Microsoft comes out, and some medium-scale successes too, and so the overall return is there, and so people keep giving them money.
On why he thinks Congress may not be hopeless:
The U.S. Congress does support solar and wind subsidies, which have been quite generous. So Congress isn’t completely absent on this. The House actually passed a climate-change bill [in 2009], when it was a Democratic Congress. There’s a class of voters who care about this, that I think both parties should want to compete for. So I don’t think it’s hopeless, because it’s about American innovation, American jobs, American leadership, and there are examples where this has gone very, very well.
On the centrality of government to progress on energy, historically:
Everyone likes to argue about how much the shale-gas boom was driven by the private sector versus government; there was some of both. Nuclear: huge amount of government. Hydropower: mind-blowingly government—because permitting those things, those big reservoirs and everything, you can’t be a private-sector guy betting that you’re going to get permitted.
People think energy is more of a private-sector thing than it is. If you go back to Edison’s time, there wasn’t much government funding. There were rich people funding him. Since World War II, U.S.-government R&D has defined the state of the art in almost every area.
I’m optimistic about climate change because of innovation.
But energy moves really slowly. There’s this thing Vaclav Smil says: If Edison were reborn today, he would find our batteries completely understandable, because it’s just chemistry. He would say, “Oh, cool, you found lithium, that was nice.” Nuclear-power plants, he would go, “What the hell is that?” That, he would be impressed with. And chips, which we can use for managing data and stuff, he’d be impressed with. But he could visit a coal plant and say, “Okay, you scaled it up.” He would visit a natural-gas plant and that would look pretty normal to him; he would look at an internal-combustion engine and he wouldn’t be that surprised.
On his faith in human ingenuity:
If you told me that innovation had been frozen and we just have today’s technologies, will the world run the climate-change experiment? You bet we will. We will not deny India coal plants; we will run the scary experiment of heating up the atmosphere and see what happens.
The only reason I’m optimistic about this problem is because of innovation. And innovation is a very uncertain process. For all I know, even if we don’t up the R&D, 10 years from now some guy will invent something and it’ll take care of this thing. I don’t think that’s very likely, but nobody has a predictor function of innovation—which is weird, because the whole modern economy and our lifestyles are an accumulation of innovations. So I want to tilt the odds in our favor by driving innovation at an unnaturally high pace, or more than its current business-as-usual course. I see that as the only thing. I want to call up India someday and say, “Here’s a source of energy that is cheaper than your coal plants, and by the way, from a global-pollution and local-pollution point of view, it’s also better.”
I think if we don’t get that in the next 15 years, then as much as people care about this thing, we will at least run the 2-degree experiment. Then there’s the question of “Okay, do we run the 3-degree experiment? Do we run the 4-degree experiment?”