What made Dostoevsky an early Trumpkin.
“Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, apropos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘I say, gentlemen, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!’”
— Notes From the Underground, Dostoevsky
The logarithms Dostoevsky was talking about there would be the mathematical representation of all possible human action according to the laws of nature used to plan and build utopia. Rationalia, Neil deGrasse Tyson would have called it, but Dostoevsky chose the Crystal Palace after a glass exhibition hall built in Hyde Park, which lives on in the name of an oft-relegated football club.
In this Crystal Palace, which is most assuredly LEED-certified, “everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world. Then — this is all what you say — new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided.”
The Underground Man rejects all this calculation of his best interest, applauding the reactionary gentleman and his “stupid” followers, and insists: “One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy—is that very ‘most advantageous advantage’ which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms.”
The Underground Man, you could say, is a Trumpkin. Don’t let the leader’s “ironical countenance” throw you off the resemblance; another more literal translation renders that a “retrograde and jeering physiognomy.”
This is the essence of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Here comes this jeering, ignoble brute kicking over the whole show, when President Obama and the rest of the world’s greatest minds had just finished solving it for us. Certainly, the question of what to do about global warming vanished after models provided “every possible answer,” didn’t it?
Of course, the models continue to spit out “every possible answer” — as in a broad range of possibilities, not a single truth one either accepts or denies — and that’s for the questions the models are meant to answer. Here’s how NASA summarizes the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on the unknowable questions: “An increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will probably boost temperatures over most land surfaces, though the exact change will vary regionally. More uncertain — but possible — outcomes of an increase in global temperatures include increased risk of drought and increased intensity of storms, including tropical cyclones with higher wind speeds, a wetter Asian monsoon, and, possibly, more intense mid-latitude storms.” So disasters, possibly. Or possibly not. But it’s certain that there will be either more disasters or not as many.
Yet leftists and journalists take dubious claims (it is possible to know the future! and we do!) and turn them into policy demands of supposedly incontrovertible merit. The question itself vanishes, ours not to reason why.
But doesn’t the Paris agreement, surely, represent the global collective effort we need to save the planet? Well, to save it from an increase of 0.2 C degrees, yes. That’s what researchers at MIT figured would be the collective effect of the non-binding agreement. And that’s if everybody else lived up to a plan that would cost us trillions — $3 trillion over two decades, according to industry estimates that Trump cited.
Power plants would take a hit of $366 billion over 15 years under Obama’s Clean Power Plan, according to industry estimates, but federal rulemaking reaches down into nooks and crannies few of us consider. The hit to the residential dehumidifier industry, which I didn’t even know existed, from just one recent green rule is $220 million.
Instead of telling the truth, reporters obscure it. USA Today writes about how we’re missing out on a chance to develop our green energy industry, as if businesses are too stupid to make money without government telling them how. Business Insider promises “devastating long-term economic consequences for the US.” The reliably useless CNN Money reports that “American businesses” don’t believe Obama’s energy regulations were job killers.
My favorite was an AP news story headlined “Leaving Paris climate agreement unlikely to add U.S. jobs, economists say.” The reporter then quoted exactly zero economists agreeing with that headline.
“Withdrawing from the Paris agreement is hardly going to create jobs in the U.S.,” read the money quote from one Cary Coglianese, a professor of law. “While specific environmental regulations can sometimes lead to job losses, they also can and do lead to job gains — with the result being roughly a wash.”
That’s also his position on regulations in general — they’re roughly a wash.
A new study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute puts the annual cost of federal regulations at $1.9 trillion. My point isn’t simply that the professor is wrong (though I think he is). It’s not that there are no economists who would agree with that headline (there are; the far-left Economic Policy Institute, among others, imagines that regulation leads to harmony and efficiency).
There will always be geniuses with detailed plans for how to build the Crystal Palace. I mistrust them all.
Consider the gap between $1.9 trillion and zero. Consider the similarity between the economy and the climate — both impossibly vast systems, with a googolplex of moving parts, few of them susceptible to study in isolation. We can identify some general principles and forces by observation — certain incentives and physical effects — but what do we know for sure? We can model a few things, but what are we leaving out that might matter more?
I think of the depth of research and the quality of data involved in economics, and there’s still no consensus on the blueprint for a Crystal Palace. Yet the planners expect us to be impressed with the observations of climatologists. Ah, so clouds are shiny, and it gets hot when you do that one thing. So clearly, the snow in upper Canada and Norway is going to melt and drown us all.
Crystal Palace South transept & south tower from Water Temple, 1854 (Wikimedia Commons)