A Few “Obvious” Basics

I was recently reminded that sometimes I state the obvious, and that’s true. But there’s a reason why I do, and that’s because even intelligent people who are wrapped up in busy lives often tend to forget the obvious, particularly when that particular obvious isn’t part of those lives in a meaningful way.

Nonetheless, dismissing or disregarding the apparently irrelevant obvious can have great peril, particularly in government. Government is the tool that human societies use to regulate human behavior. In the United States, government laws and regulations and modified economic capitalism set the boundaries because even the Founding Fathers recognized that without order there is no liberty. Setting boundaries always involves trade-offs. Like it or not, there are no perfect absolutes.

As an example, since I do have a background in environmental matters, I’ll state an obvious point. There is no clean perfectly environmentally sound way of generating electrical power. Every single method of generating power has significant environmental downsides. People cite solar power, but while the power itself is clean – at least here on Earth – every system built to use it effectively requires extensive industrial processes involving toxic chemicals on a huge scale. Hydro-power requires dams, and dams have adverse impacts on water flow and wide-spread eco-systems, not to mention the underlying geology, or the pollution involved in building the dams, turbines, and even the electrical distribution network. Nuclear power plants produce virtually no emissions, but leave a significant long-term radioactive disposal problem. Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, but drilling for it releases far more methane than has been recognized until recently and burning it raises atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which, along with the methane, increases global warming. There are similar drawbacks to various other “clean” power sources as well. Burning coal is the cheapest way to generate electrical power, but coal is the most environmentally damaging source of electrical power.

So… if government allows the unrestricted use of coal-fired power plants, electric power is cheaper, but the health and environmental costs are the highest. Thus, our government has attempted to strike a balance between health and cost. People can and do argue about where that balance should be struck, but no matter where it’s struck, there will be costs and health effects.

Free trade agreements result in lower prices for consumer goods, but they also drive higher cost U.S. industries off-shore and reduce U.S jobs in those industries. Raising tariffs against foreign imports in those industries might preserve some of those jobs, but at the cost of raising prices to U.S. consumers, and only for a while, until, as has already happened, those industries replace workers with higher tech machines that lower production costs. All of that is obvious, but U.S. workers who lost jobs don’t care. They’re angry, and they’re going to vote against “the establishment” that “let it happen,” even though the establishment had little choice if those companies wanted to stay in business because, overall, Americans voted with their dollars for lower prices from automated factories or off-shored labor over higher-priced goods produced by more U.S. workers.

Voting against the “obvious” in this case has two possibilities – either restrictive trade barriers that will trigger retaliation, resulting in higher prices and economic deterioration, as happened in the 1930s, which made the Great Depression worse, or lots of rhetoric changing nothing.

Obvious, but not so obvious, trade-offs also occur in non-economic areas. Police “profiling” does reduce crime, but the down-side is that it results in harassment of the poor and of minorities and creates political and civil unrest. Yet not having a more intensive police presence in higher-crime areas actually results in higher death rates from violence in those areas, but that presence results in more arrests and arrests for minor offenses, offenses that often do not result in arrests in more affluent areas, and those arrests have long-standing and negative economic impacts, especially in black communities. There isn’t a good, simple, or easy solution, and any solution here will have costs to some group or another.

In the end, there’s always a reason for the “obvious,” and that reason is seldom a given politician, businessman, or government bureaucrat. But the all too human response, and one that’s coming to the fore in the current election, is to focus anger on the candidate who doesn’t seem to think the way you do.

Politicians, business executives, and bureaucrats are all trying to strike the balance they think is most favorable, and while that balance may not be what you think is the best one, they’re really not out to destroy a “way of life,” unless, of course, your way of life involves crime, discrimination, environmental degradation, or shameless exploitation of the vulnerable.

But then, it’s so much easier to insist that the problem is obvious, that there’s a simple and equally obvious answer, and that all it takes is one person in charge who has THE ANSWER, rather than support leaders who are willing to acknowledge that problems in the highest technology and most complicated society in history require thought and compromise, especially since, in all history, there never been a single simple and workable answer to a complex problem, no matter what the current demagogue insists.

10 thoughts on “A Few “Obvious” Basics”

  1. Tim says:

    This evening in the UK a weekly BBC radio programme tabling politcal questions from the public to a panel of politicians included the issue of fracking. The audience loudly applauded all anti-fracking statements and only one politician was brave enough to talk about the cost balance.

    How many of the audience want to pay high energy costs. I doubt few – for all their shouting. As you say : “people will vote with their dollars (pounds)”

    1. Daze says:

      But fracking is only economically viable when energy costs are high, so the audience was right, there. Plus we already have more fossil fuels available in existing production than we can possibly burn without costing ourselves multi-trillions of dollars in remediation and adaptation to higher temperatures, and fracking is more expensive than most of those – so, audience 2: Tim 0.

      1. Tim says:

        @Daze .The audience were very opinionated as they were local to where fracking would be done, so of course they objected. They are still likely to want the benefits of cheap energy however, so long as the sites are not in their back yard. This is understandable but lthis does not mean their reaction was objective.

        This particular programme does however tend to attract an audience with a particular political persuasion, and for that reason I would suggest your scoring is equally subjective.

  2. cremes says:

    Alternate title to this piece could be, “Imaginative Author of Dozens of Novels Suffers Failure of Imagination.”

    Let’s look at a few points.

    “Voting against the “obvious” in this case has two possibilities – either restrictive trade barriers that will trigger retaliation, resulting in higher prices and economic deterioration, as happened in the 1930s, which made the Great Depression worse, or lots of rhetoric changing nothing.”

    Sheesh, without false choices like this do we really have any choice at all? Vote Trump and we’ll get another Great Depression or nothing will happen. That’s our choice? At minimum there is a third choice wherein things improve. However, the author has his usual axe to grind.

    “Nuclear power plants produce virtually no emissions, but leave a significant long-term radioactive disposal problem.”

    Yes, nuclear designs that are going on 6 decades old have this problem. Newer designs from France and China do not produce materials with multi-century half lives anymore. Google is your friend here. These new fuel sources (e.g. thorium) do have trade-offs too but not nearly as bleak as the author would contend.

    “… in all history, there never been a single simple and workable answer to a complex problem, no matter what the current demagogue insists.”

    Amen. Now if only this thesis wasn’t undermined by the implication that there is only a single demagogue in this race. Mr. Modesitt is of the Democrat Tribe; that much is clear.

    1. As usual, you’re making incorrect assumptions. I am and have been a registered Republican since I was old enough to register and vote. I was the legislative director for U.S. Representative William Armstrong [very conservative Republican] and then staff director for Ken Kramer [equally conservative Republican], then was appointed by President Reagan as the Director of Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the U.S. EPA during the Reagan Administration.

      As for nuclear power plants, so far, I can find no currently active thorium-fueled power reactor, nor is there a record of one being built. Yes, a thorium reactor has the potential for far less radioactive waste, but even it and the plants you cite produce radioactive by-products, just not as many or with wastes as long-lasting.

      The only ax I have to grind is against idiotic extremists on both the far left and far right, as anyone who’s read my books might be able to tell.

      1. cremes says:

        I infer from what I read here. I can’t recall a single time you had a positive thing to say about a Republican. As I have been reliably told (by a Republican President no less), you are either with us or against us. Perhaps you save your best criticisms for your “home team” in which case you aren’t a very good supporter of the capital-P “party.” Maybe the party left you. Heh.

        Regarding your credentials, very nice. I have a vague memory reading some of those details off of a dust jacket years ago. I’ll retract my statement about better nuclear designs since China isn’t cranking out a 3MW pebble bed reactor each week like they projected. Perhaps soon.

        I’ll trot out a saying from Robert Frost here: The middle of the road is where the white line is—and that’s the worst place to drive.

        I’ll take an “extremist” on the left or right over a mush-mouth middle-of-the-road dweller.

        1. And I’ll take a solid, middle-of-the-road pragmatist over “idealistic” extremists any day of the week.

  3. cremes says:

    Mr. Modesitt, challenge yourself over the next few weeks to pen a blog post that is in support of Republicans. Perhaps something nice about the party itself, some party-led initiative, or in praise of a particular politician. I don’t doubt that you are a Republican when you tell me that you are. However, I think your blog followers would like to see some written proof. Someone pretty smart said, “Trust, but verify.” 😉

    Though I doubt you can say anything nice about Trump, perhaps you can say something nice about one of his primary challengers. (I’m betting you hold Kasich in some esteem.)

    As a free man, you can decline.

    1. I could have lived with Kasich, but I’m frankly much more impressed by former Maine Senator Olympia Snowe or current Maine Senator Susan Collins. I happened to like a number of positions taken by Barry Goldwater. I certainly respected my former boss, Senator Bill Armstrong, or Congressman [and later judge] Ken Kramer. I happen to think that the elder President Bush was highly principled and that too many Republicans turned on him when he decided that fiscal sanity was more important than low taxes at any price. Former Utah Governor John Huntsman, Jr., who did mount an unsuccessful presidential bid, would have been far better, in my opinion, than any of the candidates that Trump vanquished. I also think highly of former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords.

      The problem I have with too many of the current Republicans is that they want freedom for what they think is important, like weapons unlimited and paving over the world, and want to restrict the freedoms of those with whom they disagree — like women, the environment, and those less fortunate — and that far too many of them spend and vote for even more pork barrel projects than do many Democrats. Maintaining hundreds of military bases that even the military doesn’t want isn’t sound national defense; it’s fiscal idiocy.

      1. cremes says:

        Thank you. Well done.

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