TCS Daily

The Genius of Ideology

By Herbert Inhaber - October 2, 2002 12:00 AM

The MacArthur Foundation annually gives out lucrative awards to so-called "geniuses." To its credit, the Foundation never has called the recipients by that name. However, they are so labeled in the popular press.

This year's assortment had the usual lineup of far-out artists, and some who were truly deserving. One of them was a man trying to improve building standards in earthquake prone areas in the Third World.
But some of the recipients this year, as in the past, were more ideologues than geniuses. No attempt is made to have diversity, one of the great catchphrases of our time, in thought. Only one attitude is generally represented, that all too common on university campuses.

Rewarded this year for his efforts in public policy was David Goldstein, the co-director of the energy program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. His public statements and public work reflect conventional wisdom about energy efficiency and conservation. If he has made genius-like statements, he has kept them to himself.

Goldstein is in favor of so-called "smart growth," the idea that if you pack enough people into cities, they will use fewer cars. Smart growth may sound like a genius concept (although Dr. Goldstein didn't invent it), until people are involved. A lot of folks in central cities, when they get enough money, want to move to the suburbs for a bit of fresh air and a slice of land. Dr. Goldstein, in his vendetta against the car and its use of petroleum, has the same, although less bloodthirsty, attitude towards people that Joe Stalin had - they are inconvenient statistics and should be penalized for their wants.

For example Dr. Goldstein has said, "location efficient mortgages would level the playing field." The idea here is that bankers should charge lower interest rates to those who buy houses in core cities, and higher ones to those in the suburbs.

People don't count in Dr. Goldstein's abstruse calculations. Anyone moving to a suburb knows that, unless they have convenient buses or subways, they will have to spend more money on gasoline and time to commute. This is the penalty they pay for having their children grow up in what they regard as better conditions. Now Dr. Goldstein wants to penalize them further, by having them pay higher interest rates.

Or consider Dr. Goldstein's work on energy consumption. In support of a Congressional bill HR 778 - a bill to provide incentives to introduce new technologies to reduce energy consumption in buildings - he said it would help cut energy use and air pollution "by 6% over the next decade - equivalent to taking 40% of the nation's cars off the road... It would also save Americans $40 billion on energy bills."

These numbers are based on a simple assumption. If every family buys a fluorescent bulb to replace an incandescent one and saves a few kilowatt-hours, you just multiply this number by the number of households (approximately 100 million) and add up your savings.

But this approach misses two key factors. First, people who save energy - or anything else - tend to use more in other areas. The ones who buy fluorescent bulbs to save energy - and they are few and far between - may decide to buy a hot tub with their savings. This is known as the bounceback effect.

Second, as people's incomes rise, energy costs become a smaller and smaller part of their spending, so they don't worry about saving so much. For example, since it costs about one-sixth the income for a typical family to drive 10,000 miles in 2000 than it did in 1950, people who buy large gas-guzzling SUVs are acting quite rationally.

Dr. Goldstein spouts conventional wisdom, very little of which he has devised himself. Geniuses don't hide factors in their equations. My idea of a true genius is Enrico Fermi, the physicist who took a material that had hitherto been used mostly to color plates and transformed it into an energy source that could power civilization for centuries, if not millennia. Can the MacArthur Foundation make a similar statement about and of the hundreds of "geniuses" it has selected over the years? Don't hold your breath.



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