Al Gore has said Americans are addicted to “short term thinking.” He is correct. Even in the business world, which is presumably rational, timelines often stretch no further than the next quarter’s earnings reports. To think ahead by spans of generations or more is not very common.
Sadly, however, Al Gore fails to emphasize – for reasons either cynical or simply because he suffers from the same affliction as most everyone else – that Americans are also victims of “scope insensitivity.” That is a big phrase – “scope insensitivity” – but understanding the meaning of this phrase is key to understanding many of the policy failures of America, especially in recent decades.
Scope insensitivity is the inability of a person, or voting block, or nation, to understand simple quantitative proportions, which if understood, would cast a policy issue in an entirely different light. Simply put, because of scope insensitivity, the logical conclusions one might rationally find obvious are eclipsed by emotional arguments.
Absent the ability to recognize basic quantitative realities, the proper scope of the relevant variables that affect a policy issue are incomprehensible, and policy becomes a puppet of whoever has the most money and the most compelling emotional appeal. Here are three interrelated examples:
HOW SCOPE INSENSITIVITY ENABLES FLAWED POLICIES:
Immigration: There is nothing wrong with America opening her borders to immigrants. America is a nation of immigrants. But Americans appear unable to grasp the difference between allowing immigration sufficient to make up for low birthrates – something all developed nations are experiencing – and allowing immigration that based on current rates will cause America’s population to increase by 50% or more within the next 20-30 years!
American policy ought to reflect a rational calculation of what rate Americans want their total population to increase – then taking into account the high birthrates of immigrants recently arrived – should calculate how many additional immigrants be admitted every year. Scope insensitivity prevents this calculation from being made. Instead, Americans are led to believe they must absorb all the dispossessed, the persecuted, the destitute, from all the world. But simple calculations will indicate conclusively that even if Americans doubled or tripled their already alarming rate of immigration, it would make virtually no dent in the number of people in the world who suffer these afflictions. The realistic way for Americans to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world is to assist them with economic development.
Corporate Profits: Pointing a reproachful finger at the major oil companies, who perhaps in aggregate declared profits of $100 billion dollars in 2007, has great emotional appeal. Ordinary people who are paying $4.00 per gallon for gas are understandably concerned.
Quantitative reality, however, scope, paints a very different picture. First of all, most of those profits are outside the USA, but even if they were all inside the USA, yearly profits of $100 billion divided by annual American gasoline consumption of 170 billion gallons only translates to a price drop of $0.58 per gallon. But major international oil companies only make a fraction of those profits in the USA, and they are not allowed to deduct from their taxable income all the money they need to explore for more oil, which means if they make no profit, they have no money to find more oil. More on that later.
Another way corporate profits are used to generate emotional arguments that translate into misguided voting and subsequent bad policy relates to CEO compensation. There are perhaps 1,000 corporate executives who make $100 million per year – probably not even that. This equates to $100 billion per year. But public employees, thanks to their public employee unions who exercise nearly absolute control over politicians and elections at the state, county and local level in most American states, now enjoy compensation that exceeds private sector compensation by a factor of 2-4x. This eggregious disparity is easily validated if, along with salaries and wages, you take into account the value of health and retirement benefits, overtime, and generous paid time off.
The difference between what America’s approximately 30 million public sector workers make, compared to what they would make if they were paid according to the globally competitive rates paid for similar work in the private sector is approximately 1.5 trillion per year (30 million times $50K) – 15 times as much! This staggering sum of money could be used to eliminate government deficits and fix our roads – but scope insensitivity means emotion rules – corporate chieftans are demonized, and cities and states go bankrupt so public employees can retire early.
Global Warming: Let’s assume all of these catastrophic projections are actually true; that we have to immediately drop atmospheric CO2 concentrations to under 350 PPM, and this is something under our control. In pursuit of this goal, in California, for example, we are going to now cram everyone into ultra high density lots, destroy all semi-rural suburbs with subsidized ultra high density infill, coerce people out of their cars, and carpet the landscape with wind and biofuel farms. But is this feasible and likely to make any difference in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations? The answer is an absolute and definite NO.
Currently over 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuel. And even if we were able to bring everyone in the world up (or down) to a per capita energy consumption at 30% that of people in the USA, energy production in the world would have to double. There is no way this will happen without fossil fuel. It is inspiring and appropriate to work to accelerate the deployment of non-fossil fuel energy. But it is completely impossible to ratchet atmospheric CO2 down to 350 PPM through curtailment of fossil fuel burning. It isn’t going to happen. Only gross scope insensitivity would allow anyone to come to such a conclusion. And absent this conclusion, policy options change considerably.
WHO ARE THE VICTIMS OF SCOPE INSENSITIVITY?
The ironic answer is the real victims are regular working people, ordinary people, all of them potential voters who never got out their calculators and overcame their scope insensitivity. And who wins? In America the environmentalist socialists – or socialist environmentalists – are the ones who win. The socialist left has taken over the environmentalist mainstream throughout the world, something that should, and does, horrify any of us who are environmentalists, but not socialists.
The unwitting agenda of socialists in America is to create a nation where social cohesion has been shattered because private sector workers including recently arrived immigrants were unable to enjoy the benefits the privileged elite enjoyed. Why? Because social security and medicare were never reformed and upgraded, because 30% or more of the electorate had unionized public sector jobs and had taxpayer supported retirement security utterly disconnected from social security and medicare. Because Americans never confronted the challenge that faces, within a generation, all humankind, which is to learn to live with a stable population. Because environmentalists marginalized economic growth at the same time as they forced an unsustainably growing, culturally fractured population into the “urban service boundaries” of exisiting cities, piling everyone on top of each other, creating social havoc, but also creating a meal ticket for the public sector employees; special education teachers, social workers, and public safety workers.
And what of the corporate sector? Socialists understand that the difference between socialism and communism is this: Socialism is communism with rich people and huge corporations. The most powerful multinational corporations always manage to thrive under the environmentalist / socialist agenda, because only the largest and wealthiest corporations can afford to comply with these ever stricter regulations. Under the eco-socialist regime, America’s traditions of market competition and creative innovation will be tragically undermined, but huge coporations will prosper. And well they should, since the tax revenues assessed on their profits – rhetorically demonized – is what enables environmentalist nonprofit activists and overpaid public sector workers to exist.
Scope insensitivity is a big part of the reason Americans may see their nation complete its downwards drift towards becoming a socialist police state controlled by government employee unions in partnership with mega corporations, enforcing rationing instead of competition, artificial scarcity instead of abundance, and solidifying the nation into two very different classes; the unionized government elite and their partners, the super rich, and everyone else. And this is the vision that carries the day unchallenged in 2008, carried on the rhetorical wings of humanitarian ideals, resentment at corporate profits, global warming crisis mongering, and extreme green ideology in general.