in Defense of Unpopular Ideas

I don’t tend to think of myself as much of an adult — I’ve acted pretty childish, overly reliant on my family for the last few years, trying to figure out how to make money doing things I like, refusing to follow the standard trajectory of work and family life — but maybe I am? (After all, I do now tie and untie my shoes every time.) More seriously, I’ve come to notice that some of the most widely despised political issues are necessary “medicine” — and need defending because it seems no one else will. 

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[Still have to figure out how to improve the jump-to links]


Support the troops: pay your taxes.

“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”
~Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

“Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order.

We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education.

So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: It’s because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”
~John Green

This is true of a lot of the things we do. It’s really useful to have a transportation infrastructure: a network of roads and trains and airports and ports that allow us to move goods around efficiently.

International Trade Deals & Globalization

It’s easy for people to fall into the trap of thinking that trade is a zero-sum game, if they win we must lose, but trade is actually a win win. Matt Ridley explains humans have been trading for perhaps ten times longer than we’ve been farming, and he explains why it’s so beneficial too.

Bailing out Financial Institutions

I know, this one is terrible, no one likes it. And I agree we should never need to bail them out — good policy and regulation should keep them in check such that failures aren’t systemic threats to an entire national (let alone global) economy.

But when we screw that up, when such a contagion does develop, it is important to have governments there as lenders of last resort, to stem the hemorrhaging of confidence.

Yes, moral hazard is a legitimate concern, but we should not be relying on their fear of not being bailed out to ensure they don’t take excessive risks anyway. That is, we worry that bailing them out will cause them to take greater risks, knowing if they get in too much trouble the government will always be there to step in — but it simply shouldn’t be possible for them to legally take such large risks. It should not be legal for the company handling your retirement fund to take that money to Las Vegas (so to speak), that should be downright illegal.

Moral hazard shouldn’t be a concern because such hazardous behavior shouldn’t be legal in the first place. Some of the problem with the 2008 mess was that much of the bad behavior that led to the collapse wasn’t illegal. And once the collapse began to occur, it was so swift and so devastating that the government was very concerned that they would not be able to stop it, which is why there were no “haircuts” (forcing financial institutions to sell their assets at a deeply discounted price), because the government was legitimately concerned that any additional harm could further the collapse. (They were worried that the collapse might continue anyway, even with the bailouts.)

So while I oppose bailouts as a general policy, I defend them as a necessary act in dire circumstances.


Capitalism simply doesn’t work without regulations. Robert Reich pointed out there is no such thing as free markets, they always rely on things like courts to be arbiters of justice, with laws to prevent fraud. Regulations are simply more rules to keep things fair. Anti-monopoly laws are obviously important, but so too are environmental protections, and banking regulations, which limit the amount of risk that can be taken.

The financial shocks of 2008 were the result of insufficient regulation, a shadow banking system, which attracted money (because were there are greater risks there are also greater rewards). But you’ll notice there was no run on typical depository institutions, no one feared about their personal savings, because of FDIC insurance, which secures our savings by limiting the kinds of risks the banks can take with our money. Analogous regulation is needed in investment banking to limit risks. In many ways 2008 was the result of the investment banking industry “laundering” risk of investments as it sold itself complex products — products where risk assessment became virtually impossible.

Food safety and product regulations are important, car safety, airplane safety, fire hazards — all have benefited tremendously from regulatory agencies. Insurance is a highly regulated industry for good reason.

In my opinion, it is OTC derivatives which must be regulated, or else we are just asking for another major bust to threaten the global economy. The relevant legislation which must be repealed and replaced is the Commodity and Futures Modernization Act (CFMA) of 2000, signed by Clinton.

Genetically Modified Organisms

Our most sophisticated and important technology for taking control of our food supply, genetic engineering enables us to make our crops more efficient, healthier, more diverse, and more interesting, if we choose. Currently it has mostly focused on the efficiency aspect, making crops more appealing to farmers, with a little delving into making healthier foods.

Farm Subsidies

Farming is a very risky business, highly sensitive to the weather. Subsidies are really just insurance against risks. America’s generous farm subsidies insulate farmers from the risks of farming, allowing them to spend profits on technology which improve yields, quality, and efficiency.

The Planet Money podcast had a few episodes where they made t-shirts, and it turned out the cotton was weaved in Indonesia, but it was grown in the US. Indonesia apparently invested in the sophisticated weaving machines, but it was the technology of American cotton farmers that made the highest quality cotton, which works best in those machines. And that technology was enabled by insuring the farmers against the risks of cotton farming, with subsidies. This was the first time I heard the reasoning behind subsidies explained, and I think they’ve been covered by the media very poorly, having never heard a defense outside of this podcast.

Foreign Intervention & Involvement

As with many of these issues, I can completely understand the opposition, and I totally agree that many of the foreign interventions the U.S. has engaged in were terrible, but not every single one. I think most people agree that there was a good reason to participate in World War II (although really America has a distorted view of it’s role, the Soviet Union had a much greater sacrifice and was far more integral to winning the war).

I think there is good criticism of the United State’s lack of involvement in certain humanitarian crisis, like the Rwandan genocide in the 90s, and probably similar criticisms of the ongoing conflict in Syria. Exactly how we should (or could) intervene in a positive way is unclear, and I’m sure we’ll be criticized in any case, but we could probably do better about humanitarian causes.

Minimum Wage

A lot of attention has been given to wealth inequality, but I think that is a mistake. The real problem we want to solve is poverty, and making sure wages are livable, providing everything needed for housing, education, food, clothing, and healthcare, and probably even some entertainment and leisure, vacation. We can solve that problem by requiring employers to pay livable wages, which could easily exacerbate wealth and income inequality, and that should not prevent us from doing so.

The additional benefit to reframing this issue in this way is that it doesn’t divide the wealthy and the poor, instead it unifies them, and the wealthy are an asset to getting things done that the poor cannot afford to oppose.

Political “Wheeling & Dealing” (Compromise)

I know, everyone hates it, and it’s easy to understand why. Whenever someone has a strong opinion about the right or wrong way to do something they’re justified in opposing compromise. But we live in a very large and diverse society — even larger when you expand your view to the globe and consider we all have to share this one planet — and in order for so many people to make decisions that affect everyone, someone is going to be unhappy, disagreements are simply unavoidable. Compromise becomes necessity. To reject compromise as unacceptable is to deny reality, and it interferes with anything progress, creating deadlock. There may be issues that you choose to never compromise on, that’s fine, but you must be willing to trade some of what you want in order to meet your opponents in the middle. Compromise on the issues you value less in order to get the issues you value more.

Accepting the messy aspects of reality is part of being an adult.

Nuclear Power

Our most indispensable tool for combatting climate change, nuclear power has gotten a very bad wrap. The American Nuclear Energy lobby has done itself no favors by pushing reactors beyond their design lifetimes, and the irrational fears are of course a big problem. My father once pointed out that nuclear power got a bad wrap for cost too because of protesting: municipalities would take out a 5 year bond to build a reactor, but due to protests that reactor would be delayed for another five years, so instead of producing power and paying down the bond after the expected 5 years it would continue accruing interest for another 5 years and in the end look much more expensive than it would have otherwise been.

Why the French Like Nuclear Power by Frontline producer Jon Palfreman, which explains how the French politicians addressed public concern about waste disposal/storage.

Information useful in calculating the efficiency of nuclear power

Michael Shellenberger’s TED talk: How fear of nuclear power is hurting the environment in which he explains that all of the gains made by solar & wind power have been more than canceled out by the loss of nuclear power generation.  
Coal Ash is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste, by Mara Hvistendahl (though note, because this article was written in late 2007, it was before the Fukushima meltdown, which did release some radioactive material into the atmosphere).
Hydroelectric Power Isn’t as Green as We Thought by Jamie Condliffe, about recent research that has revised the estimated methane emissions of hydroelectric power upwards.
Cost analysis of solar, wind, and nuclear, by Mike Conley & Tim Maloney.
Demand for clean energy inspires new generation to innovate in nuclear power by the PBS NewsHour.
Nathan Myhrvold explaining the problem we face, which really boils down to the product of the number of people there are (and the amount more we expect are coming) and the amount of energy each person uses (and really, the amount each person deserves).

The Taichung Power Plant in Taiwan, which is the world’s largest coal-fired power station with a capacity of nearly 6 GW, and also the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, about the same as the entire nation of Switzerland.

Also look through the list of the largest power stations and compare the coal & nuclear stations to the renewables, and also recognize that although hydroelectric is “renewable” that does not mean it is “green” — flooding vegetation often means many years of methane emissions as the vegetation rots (as the article I linked above explains). Also note that although nuclear is not strictly renewable, it is green, in the sense that it does not continuously emit large amounts of greenhouse gases over the lifetime of operation.

China is now working on the largest wind farm project ever, aiming for a total of 20 GW, achieving more than 5 GW by 2010 and possibly 12 GW by 2015. At about $17.6 billion it’s cost effectiveness isn’t clear however, and I haven’t yet found numbers on the area of land it occupies. A more recent article on the costs illustrates some of the other hurdles facing the switch to cleaner sources.

Deep isolation as a waste disposal strategy.

I should take the time to calculate (or look up), the land area requirements. How many acres per megawatt for solar wind & nuclear? Then use Myrvold’s point about everyone is going for 11 toasters, and the UN population estimates of 9-11(?) billion people by 2100.

“Natural” as “Good” or “Chemical” as “bad”

This one just plain bothers me. Natural is not a synonym for “good”, and chemical is not a synonym for “bad”. And expressing either idea suggests a deep ignorance of the basics of chemistry.

Everything is a chemical, all physical matter. Chemistry is the study of the properties of matter, and how to manipulate it in its greatest details. We’ve all benefited tremendously from chemistry, and the ability to break down natural products into their constituent parts, and rebuild them into things we want and need.



I can’t say I am without an ideology—everyone who knows me will recognize I am outspoken on a number of issues, and am at heart a scientist.
But it strikes me how sweeping political ideologies tend to be. Capitalism, communism, socialism, libertarianism—each seems to have some attractive features, but the most vocal adherents of each seem to try to apply them to every single situation, as if we should expect one approach to society should work best for every single aspect of society.

It seems much healthier to look at each problem we face independently of one another and pick the solution that works best, regardless of what “-ism” it might be associated with.

[To do: go through some reasons each of these is good and bad.]

Capitalism has been great for technology, and globally it stands alone as pretty much the only thing that raises people out of poverty. But on it’s own, nothing about capitalism does anything for the least fortunate people. The elderly and frail who cannot work, are left behind without some kind of redistributive mechanism to help them out. Capitalism also needs some restrictions in order to stay beneficial to most people. Monopolies, fraud, negative externalities (like pollution), corruption (in it’s many forms), gambling (in banking)—there is nothing about capitalism that makes it immune to any of these things. (In fact, I doubt any ideology is ever immune to corruption, instead whatever system we build we should strive to design mechanisms to prevent, to seek out, catch, & prosecute corruption.) A strong court system that is able to adjudicate disputes in a capitalist system is an obvious must.

Communism tends to go to the opposite extreme, aiming to provide for everyone equally, which is justifiably seen as unfair by anyone who feels they work harder than other people. (Not necessarily work harder than everyone but at least harder than some.) And again, because no system is immune to corruption, historically, communist regimes seem to have suffered from rife corruption.

Socialism seems like such a misused term (by both opponents and proponents in the US) that it’s hard to say it means much of anything at all. Conservatives tend to equate socialism to communism, or nazism. They often claim that while socialism is supposed to be different, it always leads to communism. Liberals tend to use socialism to describe any sort of broad government service, like single-payer healthcare. 

I’m not sure that democracy is all it’s cracked up to be. Isaac Asimov wrote of a “Cult of Ignorance” in America, which he said was caused by the democratic attitude that “your ignorance is equal to my knowledge”. And I think he made a very good point: people are not equally qualified to judge who is most suitable for a given job. I think the primary problem here is: how can we possibly improve it? Sometimes I contemplate a test for voting, which obviously makes people weary, for a number of reasons (who’s to decide what is on this test, whether it is fair, what about the tests that were used to deny people of color the vote well into the 20th century). So it’s hard to imagine a test for voting getting very far, but maybe it could be designed with very simple, easily learned, basic questions about the government; “what are the three main branches of the government? which branch has two houses and what are they called? how many Supreme Court justices are there? how long do Supreme Court justices serve? can the president fire Supreme Court justices? who declares war?” Maybe we could get people to vote on which questions to include. They could all be directly from the Constitution, to attempt to avoid the ambiguity & disagreement that many other questions would cause. Seems far-fetched still.

Personally, I’d like to see a scientocracy—a government that uses science to solve it’s problems, rather than political ideologies. And I want to live in a meritocracy that has an “egalitarian bottom”, (that is, a capitalist system where people are rewarded on their achievements, but with a lower threshold which people cannot fall below; mainly that no one ever struggles to have shelter, nutrition, and healthcare (and I’d like to add education & some leisure too)).

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