PRAGMATISM GIVES WAY TO MAGICAL THINKING
By Yonoson Rosenblum | OCTOBER 6, 2022
Pragmatism is too rarely associated with our politicians today
ataclysmic events just prior to Succos awaken us to the constant need for the Divine protection, of which the succah is the preeminent symbol. The outbreak of the Second Intifada just before Rosh Hashanah of 5761/2000; the felling of the Twin Towers on 9/11 the next year; and last year's panicked American flight from Afghanistan, while abandoning thousands of Afghanis who aided America to their fate at the hands of the Taliban, which seemed to many to signal the end of America's world leadership, are examples of the phenomenon.
I don't anticipate any such events this year — one never does. The Russian invasion of Ukraine certainly qualifies as an earth-shattering event, a reversion to a world order long thought buried, in which large, militarily powerful nations invade their neighbors on the slightest of pretexts and, having failed on the military front, don't hesitate to launch direct and undisguised attacks on civilian populations. The consequences of that invasion will have immense impact on the entire world for years to come in terms of shortages of basic foodstuffs and critical energy supplies. And it has formally cemented a new "axis of evil" in the form of an alliance between China, Russia, and Iran. But the fighting in Ukraine has been ongoing for eight months, and is thus not proper fodder for a pre-Succos column.
MY CURRENT DISQUIETUDE, however, derives less from any specific event than from a general sense that the vast majority of world leaders, including our own, have little grasp of the issues that will confront the citizens whom they purport to lead in the future, and little interest in the details of public policy. Think for a moment what it means that in a nation of over 330 million souls, Joe Biden and Donald Trump were the two candidates for president in 2020, and that both are chafing for a rematch in 2024 — and, unbelievably, might get it.
Those concerns about the current state of world leadership were triggered by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana and currently the president of Purdue University. Daniels's subject was President Biden's college debt forgiveness. A large part of the justification for that forgiveness was the skyrocketing cost of a university education that has risen faster than any other category in the American economy.
Yet at Purdue, tuition and fees are the same as they were in 2012 — i.e., they have declined in real dollars. Sixty percent of Purdue's students graduate without any debt, and the average debt per student is only $3,000. Purdue achieved that by making the containment of costs a top priority, in particular by lower ratios of administrators (the barnacles of modern education) to faculty and by less gold-plating of new buildings. Meanwhile enrollment and revenues have surged.
And Daniels apparently has more ideas where those come from. He proposes, for instance, that colleges and universities should bear some of the responsibility when loan recipients default, because they encouraged students to go greatly into debt for an education that in many cases provides no marketable skill. (Purdue is primarily an engineering school, and there is always a demand for engineering graduates.)
Daniels appears to be an old-fashioned Connecticut Yankee, a problem-solver. He is a representative of the pragmatism for which America was once known. Pragmatism, however, is too rarely associated with our politicians today, aside from a handful of governors.
At the national level, the content of legislation involving hundreds of millions of dollars is rarely discussed, only the amounts involved — for Democrats, the greater the amount, the better, and for Republicans the opposite. Even the commentariat that is supposed to enlighten us on such matters primarily devotes itself to whose political fortunes will be helped or harmed by passage.
And it is not as if there are no major challenges facing the United States or the world that require a lot of thinking about. For Americans, those issues include how to secure the electrical grid and other infrastructure from cyberattack. Or how we jump-start our educational system to ensure that we don't fall far behind our competitors. (Hint: It will not be by instructing math teachers to deemphasize "getting the right answer" because doing so is a form of white thinking , as the Oregon department of education recently did.) The coming impact of widespread automation also requires much thought and planning.
THE DAY-ONE decisions of President Biden manifest the hyper-partisanship and ideological thinking that make modern government such a poor vehicle for problem solving. The first was announcing the reversal of the Trump administration's "stay in Mexico" policy during the processing of asylum requests. No plausible reason was offered for the reversal other than a general disdain for anything done by the previous administration. The announcement predictably was treated as a virtual invitation to cross the border — an invitation eagerly taken up by millions.
The second was the announcement of the withdrawal of approval for the Keystone pipeline and a dramatic cut in government oil leases with the intent of dramatically reducing domestic production of hydrocarbons. To replace domestic gas, oil, and coal production, the administration relied exclusively on quasi-religious magical thinking about the easy substitution of "renewable" energy — i.e., wind and solar.
The lessons of so casually sacrificing energy independence are now clear. First, don't give up current energy sources until an alternative is at hand, for it may never arrive. Second, it is better to rely on one's own resources than to have to beg others for theirs. Biden had to go hat-in-hand to Saudi Arabia, which he had vowed to treat as a pariah, to seek increased oil production, and even beseeched Venezuela, already a pariah, for oil. (Note also that hydrocarbons taken out of the ground elsewhere have no less environmental impact than those so removed in America. Fracking for natural gas allowed America to lead the world in the reduction of carbon emissions.)
In some ways, European leaders are even further down the path of magical thinking. Europe is facing a long, cold winter, as a result of the cut-off of Russian gas. Yet when President Trump warned the Germans at the UN of the risk of dependence on Russian energy, the German delegates could not contain their mirth.
Even prior to the Russian cut-off, Europeans had long been closing down their own energy sources: North Sea oil and gas production; the Groningen natural gas fields in the Netherlands, which would be capable of making up the shortfall from Russia this coming winter; and nuclear plants — the one truly "clean" source of energy — in Germany. (In a delicious bit of irony, the German Green Party now advocates for increased coal burning — the dirtiest form of hydrocarbons — over nuclear energy.)
Germany has led the way, and last year the cost of electricity to German producers nearly tripled, and went up 26 percent over just the last month. Those huge energy costs, points out Mark Mills (City Journal, "Europe is Losing the Energy War," September 18), have rendered the costs of steel, aluminum, glass, and fertilizer production in excess of what their products can be sold for. And that, in turn, threatens a host of other domestic industries downstream. Britain is staring at the potential shutdown of 60 percent of its manufacturers, and the rest of Europe is headed in the same direction.
Many machines cannot simply be shut off and restarted without sustaining significant damage. And in any event, no investors will be found for energy-intensive industries as long as governments remain hostile to the most abundant sources of energy.
Renewables have not proven the deus ex machina to replace hydrocarbons dreamed of by European leaders. And for reasons well known to all not caught up in magical thinking. Most important, they are only intermittent sources of energy and the power generated must be stored in batteries. Apart from the fact that China controls a dominant share of the rare metals used in most of the current storage batteries — and thus reliance on those batteries is the equivalent of baring Europe's neck to the Chinese — the necessary storage capacity does not exist.
America and Europe, Mills notes, in normal times store one to two months of their coal, oil, and natural gas needs. Storing hydrocarbons is relatively easy. For Europe, however, to match the energy value of two months of natural gas from renewables would require building $40 trillion of batteries, an amount that would take all the world's existing battery manufacturers 400 years to produce.
For Europe, the consequences of avoiding hard facts and dwelling in a fantasyland will be felt with a vengeance this coming winter. Hopefully, other nations, including the United States, will be able to learn from the mistakes of Europe's benighted leaders.
And for Jews, as we enter our succahs, may we take to heart in our dependence on He Who favors man with understanding (and can also make him stupid).