Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Wisdom of Solomon

Last Friday in my Rediscovering Math class, we talked about exponential growth. This was not an easy subject to approach for my audience, and sometime soon I hope I can share what we did, because it was an interesting session. But something that has remained with me since then is what happened when I went to the Web the night before to see if there were any good materials I could cherry-pick. When I googled "exponential growth", I was surprised to see this awful, awful page ranked #5 (out of about 1,000,000):


This is probably a relic page, dating as it does from an environmental studies class given way back in 1999; but the fact that the Web still ranks it so highly makes me wonder about the state of this art. (And until we get something better, is there such a thing as a linkectomy? I'm doing my part, by not using a hyperlink.)

The monotone awfulness of this thing assaults the senses, but in particular I wonder about its take on "the two principal problems in energy management." Can these ever really have been, as this professor suggested, "Failure for policy makers to understand the concept of exponential growth" and "Failure for legislation to be formulated and passed to give us a long term energy strategy"? Is it really possible that all of the failure belongs this conveniently to others, while none of it belongs to us, the educators and the technically adept?

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 2007 report, lead author Susan Solomon was asked by a reporter "to sum up what kind of urgency this sort of report should convey to policy makers" (article
). She answered, "I can only give you something that’s going to disappoint you, sir, and that is that it’s my personal scientific approach to say it’s not my role to try to communicate what should be done. I believe that is a societal choice. I believe science is one input to that choice, and I also believe that science can best serve society by refraining from going beyond its expertise. In my view, that’s what the I.P.C.C. also is all about, namely not trying to make policy-prescriptive statements, but policy-relevant statements."

In this response Dr. Solomon was making an important point, namely that the report in itself is not and was never intended to be a policy document, but rather a statement of scientific consensus. Consequently, her role in leading the panel was not to argue for what should be done about the problem. So far, so good. But what worried me was the possible suggestion in these remarks that Dr. Solomon sees her role in this process as having concluded. I sincerely hope that will not the case. Given all that she has accomplished already, and given the years she has spent bringing this report to light, it is hard to ask that Dr. Solomon give even more. But how can the one person who best understands this report not be at the center of the discussion of what to do about it?

Perhaps the most hopeful view we can take of Dr. Solomon's remarks is that by preserving her objectivity in this way - by presenting herself as a dispassionate master of the facts of the case - she may actually be enhancing her ability to affect energy policy in the United States over the coming years. But that will only happen if she decides to take the next step.

1 comment:

byron said...

Hi Jason,

I love this blog! Here's hoping your readership increases exponentially.
I found your description of Solomon's position vis-a-vis policy makers who may not understand the full ramifications of exponential growth interestingly analogous to Ben Bernanke's in his recent testimony to Congress about the potential growth of government debt relative to GDP.

The entire testimony is here

The part that refers to exponential growth (both implicitly and explicitly) goes a little like this-

"...the outcomes that appear most likely, in the absence of policy changes, involve rising budget deficits and increases in the amount of federal debt outstanding to unprecedented levels. For example, one plausible scenario is based on the assumptions that:

(1) federal retirement and health spending will follow the CBO's intermediate projection;

(2) defense spending will drift down over time as a percentage of GDP;

(3) other non-interest spending will grow roughly in line with GDP; and

(4) federal revenues will remain close to their historical share of GDP - that is, about where they are today.

Under these assumptions, the CBO calculates that, by 2030, the federal budget deficit will approach 9 percent of GDP - more than four times greater as a share of GDP than the deficit in fiscal year 2006.

A particularly worrisome aspect of this projection and similar ones is the implied evolution of the national debt and the associated interest payments to government bondholders. Minor details aside, the federal debt held by the public increases each year by the amount of that year's unified deficit. Consequently, scenarios that project large deficits also project rapid growth in the outstanding government debt.

The higher levels of debt in turn imply increased expenditures on interest payments to bondholders, which exacerbate the deficit problem still further. Thus, a vicious cycle may develop in which large deficits lead to rapid growth in debt and interest payments, which in turn adds to subsequent deficits.

According to the CBO projection that I have been discussing, interest payments on the government's debt will reach 4-1/2 percent of GDP in 2030, nearly three times their current size relative to national output. Under this scenario, the ratio of federal debt held by the public to GDP would climb from 37 percent currently to roughly 100 percent in 2030 and would continue to grow exponentially after that."

I liked your suggestion that scientists and academics should put more onus on themselves to educate policymakers about the impact of exponential growth on things like the environment, etc... I'd be interested to hear if you think it's a fair analogy to say that economists like Bernanke have an equally pressing duty to educate policymakers about the pitfalls of not understanding exponential growth as it relates to deficits, interest payments, etc...

In Bernanke's case, he is obligated to stay out of the policymaking arena (except when it comes to interest rates), so, like Solomon, he is almost forced to take on a simply "advisory" role. Unfortunately, it looks like the consequences of not heeding his advice could be pretty significant for all of us!

Keep up the great work!