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They Meant Well, Mostly

‘Peak oil’ and other follies.

Picture via Getty Images.

Anybody else remember “peak oil”? 

“Peak oil” was the name given to a once-popular claim that worldwide demand for oil would soon outstrip the ability of producers to supply it, sending energy prices skyrocketing. The idea wasn’t that we were on the verge of running out of oil in the immediate future—though some of the more excitable types did frame the issue that way—but that cheap oil and gas were, or soon would be, things of the past. 

Of course, the opposite was the case. The bundle of techniques known colloquially as “fracking” opened up supplies of oil and gas previously thought too expensive to extract. We pointy-headed types with stacks of Milton Friedman books were not particularly surprised by that, because one of the things free markets do—if we let them—is discover new, more efficient ways to do familiar tasks. The promise of upward pressure on the price of oil encouraged innovation and investment in efficiency. A technology that isn’t economical with a barrel of oil at $x might prove very economical with a barrel of oil at $2.2x. And once a technology has been brought online, then the miracle of marginality comes into play: It cost Apple something well north of $1 billion to build the first iPhone, but the second iPhone probably cost about $80. Spread that initial $1 billion development cost across the 2.5 billion or so iPhones that have been sold so far, and it looks like a bargain. 

Of course, econ nerds are not the only ones who might have seen the problem with “peak oil.” People with a general familiarity with recent history might have guessed as much. 

Before peak oil, there was The Population Bomb, that “controversial, hastily written, sloppy, error-filled, ridiculous, racist, eugenicist, and forthrightly authoritarian 1968 polemic” that remains a powerful force on the thinking of political movements ranging from abortion rights to anti-war activism. Like “peak oil,” The Population Bomb was an exercise in vulgar Malthusian economics, rooted in the erroneous assumption that how we produce a given product or commodity today is how we will always do it, ignoring the ways in which scarcity encourages innovation and investment. Paul Ehrlich, the book’s author, predicted with unassailable confidence and utter contempt for disagreement that the United Kingdom would see widespread famine by the end of the 20th century, and that “in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” 

Asked why he got it so wrong, Ehrlich—who remains invincibly unembarrassed by his risible prophesying—said that nobody could have predicted the increase in food production worldwide that would be brought about by the work of Norman Borlaug and other contributors to the Green Revolution. Same pattern as “peak oil,” of course. Population forecasters and economists who pay attention to their work worry that the great threat to worldwide human flourishing a century or so hence will be a precipitous population decline rather than the overpopulation menace we’ve heard about all our lives. 

As the old proverb has it: “It ain’t so much men’s ignorance that does the harm as their knowing so many things that ain’t so.” “Peak oil” and the population scare are not conspiracy theories as such, but they scratch the same itch and work in the same way. 

The Population Bomb was a very bad book—somewhere between incompetently written and wicked—but it had, and continues to have, enormous influence on certain quarters of intellectual life. It is not the only book of its kind. 

Millions of people around the world believe that there exists a thing called “multiple-personality disorder,” which doesn’t actually exist, at least in the version stuck in the population imagination. The idea much of the world has about “multiple-personality disorder” is largely based on a very famous 50-year-old book, Sybil. The book’s influence was amplified by the 1976 made-for-TV movie based on it and starring Sally Field. Sybil fell somewhere between very bad journalism and outright hoax—a wildly profitable hoax, with the first run of the book numbering 400,000 copies. The problems with its claims have been known and understood for many years. But that hasn’t done very much, if anything, to reduce the power of the Sybil-style “multiple-personality disorder” myth. 

Sybil and other similar books about women suffering from mental-health problems (such as Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted) effectively pressed certain feminist buttons, and were taken up and defended on those grounds. It isn’t that people want to believe something untrue for its own sake—they want to believe something untrue for a particular reason. As with conspiracy theories, hoaxes such as Sybil fortify a certain worldview. 

The environmental movement had its Silent Spring, which, like Sybil, was somewhere between incompetent and fraudulent. The indigenous-peoples’ movement had I, Rigoberta Menchu, a work of fiction masquerading as memoir. A generation of Middle Eastern scholars and activists was deeply moved by Edward Said’s account of his hardscrabble Palestinian childhood, which he invented. Every story you’ve ever heard based on the recovery of repressed memories is a lie. 

A particularly ugly subgenre of this school of fiction is the weaponization of false rape stories for political purposes. There was the Brett Kavanaugh matter, prominently, but also Rolling Stone’s lurid—and made-up—account of a rape at the University of Virginia, which was supposed to tell us something profound about the relationship between “privilege” (white, male, what have you) and sexual violence. Lena Dunham did the same thing when in her memoir—another work of fiction masquerading as nonfiction—she invented a rape by a College Republican named “Barry,” a claim her publisher was obliged to retract after it failed to stand up to about 20 minutes’ worth of journalism. The New Republic’s infamous tale of sexual debauchery at CPAC was invented (by the notorious Stephen Glass) for the same purpose. The need to believe that those who disagree with us are evil overpowers the capacity to think critically. 

This holds true at the individual level and, more importantly, at the institutional level. “Peak oil” was mostly shoddy analysis, Rolling Stone’s campus-rape story was an excessively credulous repetition of obviously questionable claims, Lena Dunham’s story was simply made up; what they have in common is that they got past editors and fact-checkers and ran right through basic institutional guardrails because the people entrusted with the responsibility for investigating such claims wanted them to be true. Dunham did not invent a rape perpetrated by the president of the campus chapter of the Sierra Club or the International Socialists—the political valence of the hoax was the point. 

“Sanity,” as the poet said, “is a full-time job.”

It takes a great deal of effort to keep oneself grounded in the real, in the particular facts of the case. Everybody knows a fragment of a related quote from George Orwell, but the sentences that follow are worth reading:

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.

And that’s something we’ve all heard a million times: “None of us ever really believed that!” But they did. People went to prison as a result of some of these inventions. And there are millions of people who died of malaria who didn’t have to, thanks, at least in part, to Silent Spring. We have made energy policy, environmental policy, population-control policy, medical policy, economic policy, criminal-justice policy—based on lies. We have done so for decades and will do so for decades more. 

Remind me: Which road is it that is paved with good intentions? 

Economics for English Majors

A woman who is an expert in financial regulation observes that under ESG rules, a firm may derive a financial benefit from having more women on its board of directors, but may derive an equal benefit from increasing its use of recycled materials. That means that, in purely financial terms, a woman’s value could, under those rules, be expressed as an equivalent amount of garbage—surely not exactly what was intended. 

ESG—“environmental, social, governance”—programs are part of the broader tendency toward what is sometimes known—idiotically, in my view—as “stakeholder capitalism,” a formulation that is meant to throw a little shade at shareholder capitalism. Shareholder capitalism is the kind of capitalism that is characterized, or was characterized, by what is sometimes known as the “Friedman Doctrine,” after Milton Friedman. The Friedman Doctrine is the radical idea that the people who own a company should act like they own the place—that the company should be run for the benefit of the people who own it, within the obvious boundaries of law and ethical behavior. The most important competing set of interests isn’t shareholders-vs.-general public, but shareholders-vs.-CEO, or shareholders-vs.-management more generally. 

Friedman wrote:

In a free‐enterprise, private‐property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. Of course, in some cases his employers may have a different objective. A group of persons might establish a corporation for an eleemosynary purpose—for example, a hospital or school. The manager of such a corporation will not have money profit as his objective but the rendering of certain services.

In either case, the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them.

(“Eleemosynary” means charitable.)

Like textualism in legal interpretation, the so-called Friedman Doctrine is something that ought to be utterly uncontroversial. People have a general right to use their property as they see fit for their own ends; more to the point, other people do not generally have a right to commandeer property that is not theirs to use for their own ends. But that is what “stakeholder capitalism” advocates and requires. “Stakeholder capitalism” treats people who are not the owners of a certain bit of capital as though they were. The idea is that this is a way to make firms serve some socially desirable end—defined by non-shareholders, of course—as though firms did not provide socially important goods in the ordinary course of doing business. Steel companies, for example, provide society with a very important good: steel. In fact, profits are one way of measuring how much social value a firm actually produces—if by social value we mean the things society actually values, rather than the things politicians and activists and others think society should value. Society is made up of people, and people, damn their eyes, act as though they have minds of their own, their own priorities, their own values, and their own desires. This can produce results that are mystifying to me: I don’t think that Twitter is any better for the world than is pornography or heroin, but the standard isn’t “What Kevin D. Williamson Likes.” People get to make their own choices, almost as though they had their own little brains and their own little plans. 

People used to ding Steve Jobs because he didn’t give away a lot of money to charity. He gave away gazillions of dollars more than his critics did, of course. But the value Steve Jobs brought to the world isn’t whatever money he spread around the do-gooder space—it was Apple and Apple products. Henry Ford’s philanthropy did a lot less good for the world than his cars and his car company did. 

The “stakeholder capitalism” notion that businesses should be run with an eye to the social interest begs the question. Creating all the useful and needful and desirable goods and services we need is the social value that firms create. There are ancillary goods, too, of course: jobs and incomes for workers, taxes paid, the development of new technologies and new markets that create benefits outside of the firm’s particular offerings, etc.

Another way of looking at the question is that running businesses in the interest of shareholders is the same thing as running businesses in the interest of society—if society needs cars and steel and avocados and pharmaceuticals and, egad, social-media platforms and such. 

Words About Words

Here is a bit of dishonest—and ironic—legal analysis in Slate, precisely the sort of thing that alert readers have come to expect from Dahlia Lithwick. Writing about a note Chief Justice William Rehnquist sent to Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in an affirmative-action case, Lithwick and co-author Richard L. Hasen write:

Whether or not Rehnquist’s point about the goal of the Civil War was right as an historical matter, it is reprehensible that he did not want the court to even suggest that integration of American society was a worthy objective embodied in one of the Reconstruction Amendments.

What Rehnquist actually wrote to his colleague:

You say that the Fourteenth Amendment embodies “the goal of a fully integrated society.” The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits discrimination; it does not require integration, and I think it is a mistake to intimate that it does even as a “goal.”

Hasen and Lithwick would have readers believe that Rehnquist objected to a Supreme Court justice taking the position that racial integration is a worthy goal; what Rehnquist actually was writing about, as the text makes clear, is whether the lawmakers who wrote and ratified the 14th Amendment believed that they were creating a law that codified such a goal. Rehnquist is writing about a question of fact—what the 14th Amendment actually says and was understood to say at the time it was ratified—while Hasen and Lithwick slander him on unrelated normative grounds. Rehnquist wasn’t writing about his goals or O’Connor’s goals but about the goals of the authors of the 14th Amendment. If Hasen and Lithwick understand this and have willfully misrepresented it, they are engaged in intellectual dishonesty; if they do not understand this, then they are suffering from intellectual incompetence. In neither case should such work be permitted to go unchallenged. 

Funny thing, here: Rehnquist came from a legal tradition holding that what the text actually says matters; Hasen and Lithwick come from a different tradition—one that holds that those with power should use the law for their own ends as they see fit and worry about interpretive plausibility afterward, if at all—and the Slate authors have here shown the most obvious shortcoming of their defective approach: Words can be willfully misinterpreted with malicious intent. 

The school of legal analysis known as “textualism”—a fancy way of saying that we write our laws down for a reason and hence that we ought to pay attention to what they actually say—looks first to the language of a statute or a constitution for guidance. In cases in which the language is ambiguous or subjected to meaningfully contested interpretation, the related “originalist” tendency looks to the “original public meaning” of a law, i.e., to what the people who wrote the law thought it meant, what the people who elected them thought it meant, etc. The standard is, roughly, “What would a well-informed person at the time of the provision’s passage have understood the provision to mean?” Whether the authors of the 14th Amendment, writing in 1868, should have created a constitutional provision that forbade, say, the racial segregation of schools prohibited after the Brown decision, is a separate question from whether they did create such a provision. 

Reading the Constitution in an “original public meaning” frame is something progressive activists would very much like to avoid, because it is unlikely that the authors of the 14th Amendment or the citizens who ratified it thought they were enacting a constitutional reform that would nullify state bans on same-sex marriage or enable any of the many other ends to which the 14th Amendment has been put over the years. It would be helpful to the cause of an open and intelligent public discourse if our progressive friends would stop pretending that such questions as (e.g.) whether it is desirable to get rid of anti-gay laws on the statute books is the same question as whether the Constitution requires this. We ought to have the maturity and good civic sense to understand that not every good thing we might imagine in Anno Domini 2023 was somehow magically previsioned and mandated by guys in powdered wigs in the 18th century or by Puritan-inflected abolitionists in the 19th century. The Constitution is not a magic hat out of which we can pull any rabbit we fancy; we will have to do some work in our own time. 

Slate is not a great outlet in general (which may be why its once-amusing advice columns have degenerated into this generation’s answer to Penthouse Forum) but its legal commentary is shamefully dishonest and incompetent. 

Speaking of Slate … 

Alexander Sammon has written a very entertaining report from the annual convention of the nation’s politically engaged car dealers, held in Dallas. If you do yourself the favor of reading it, you will come across these lines:

I retreated to a side room, where a man named Andrew—bald, besotted—told me it was his seventh NADA convention. So far this one was tame compared with last year’s in Las Vegas, he said, chewing on a pork slider from a nearby buffet table and swallowing the finer syllables of his words. “You know why they couldn’t have it in Vegas this year?” he asked. “Too many divorces.” Behind him, two men in vests went up and down on a seesaw in the shape of a mustache, each sitting atop one curl of the handlebar.

Read in its contemporary sense, we would conclude from the above that a bald car dealer has fallen in love with Alexander Sammon, which I suppose is possible. But I think Sammon here is using besotted to mean drunk, rather than to mean what it usually means, infatuated. Drunk is listed as an “archaic” meaning of besotted in the dictionaries where it appears at all (though I consulted only a few), but the meaning is stuck in there pretty deep: A sot may be in modern English a foolish or feckless person, but the literal meaning of the word is, or was, drunkard. I found Sammon’s usage jarring, and I prefer the precision that is enabled by having different words for different things, but I also enjoy a good archaic usage as much as the next pedant. 

A parallel case is intoxicate. A very alluring woman may be described as intoxicating, and everybody knows what is meant; the effects of romantic attraction have been compared to the effects of wine for millennia, across languages and cultures. (And the comparison of these both to religious ecstasy is equally widespread.) One rarely hears men described as intoxicating, though many of them are branded with the related adjective toxic

So, I would guess that Sammon’s car dealer was intoxicated, in a purely heterosexual way, or besotted, in an archaic one. 

Two Republican guys on a mustache-shaped seesaw? I might have thought there was a little Stephen Glass at work but for the pictures. 

Elsewhere

You can read my dispatch from Ukraine here. It begins:

KYIV—This doesn’t feel like a city at war, or a city under martial law. Not at first, anyway. 

Kyiv is a city with packed restaurants—reservations are hard to come by—packed bars, packed cafes, busy streets. Our hotel is bustling, the traffic is substantial, and, overall, Kyiv has the look and feel of an ordinary European capital. 

In the hotel lobby, we are met by the security guys, two serious young British veterans who give us our body armor, our helmets, and our emergency medical kits, with the advice that if we don’t know how to use deep-wound dressing, it’s probably best just to leave it in the package until somebody competent comes along to do it for us. Later in the day, I’ll meet a guy who helped amputate his own arm with a field knife after the limb was mostly blown off his body, hanging on by only a few tendons. We take the protective gear and stow it in our rooms, where it stays, while we go off to have our meetings and our conversations and our meals and to do our sightseeing. It can get a little strange: Go up to a high enough floor in the hotel and you’ll encounter GPS jamming, and it is difficult to call an Uber when the app thinks you are somewhere off the coast of Africa. Better to do it from the lobby. 

The missile attacks come that night.

Kyiv is a very interesting place, where the mundane aspects of everyday life in a modern European capital run up against the chaos of 21st-century warfare. I think you may enjoy the report. 

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto, here

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You can see my New York Post columns here

In Closing

California Spent $17 Billion on Homelessness,” reads the Wall Street Journal headline. “It’s Not Working.” That may seem puzzling, until you consider the possibility that homelessness in this, the wealthiest major country in the world, is not an economic phenomenon. We the people of these United States have many serious problems—lack of financial resources is not one of them. We currently are spending more in our entitlement-dominated federal budget than we spent in 1942, when we were fighting World War II, and we will not have anything more to show for it than California does for its billions spent on homelessness. When you are rich—and we are so rich!—problems that can be solved with money are the kind of problems you want to have. But our big problems are not money problems. Even our money problems aren’t really money problems. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.