wanker moment 6: superfuckmeovereconomics

Out of my usual 00 motives – disgust with all mankind, disgust with myself, and just a teaspoonful of disgust for the 10 trillion living creatures on the ten billion planets throughout the cosmos – I wrote a parody on my site, Limited Inc (LI) February 19 2006 about profitmaking solutions to global warming. It went like this:

"money makin' ideas for the AEI to consider

Being broke at the moment, LI has been in search of a surefire source of revenue. And then it occurred to us: what kind of pro-active, pro-business response to global warming would warm the hearts of rightwing moneybags and bring in the checks?

Surely the thing to do is controlled volcanic management! We keep our cars, SUVs and coal generated plants going along at full carbon tilt, toss in a few atom bombs into the crater of some isolated volcano every year or so, and get the wonderfully cooling effect of pumping “sufficient amounts of ash into the air.” This package has everything: major manipulation of nature, atom bomb use, and a pro-carbon agenda. We are writing to the Scaife foundation for a grant right away! Happy days are here again!

From the Washington Post Q and A with Eugene Linden, author of Winds of Change:

Q: “As I've followed the global warming/climate change discussion, three historically based questions have always interested me. First, the drop in temperatures from the 1940s to the 1970s seems to contradict the correlation between human generated greenhouse gases and warming. Has this been adequately explained? Second, there was a significant warming period during the middle ages during which an agricultural colony was established in Greenland, but there was little or no human generated greenhouse gases at the time. Does this indicate that other factors besides human activity are the predominant causes of warming? Finally, proxies for temperature measures (i.e. ice cores, tree rings) have indicated that current temperatures are below long-term millennial temperature averages, and these long term trends track very closely to trends in solar activity. Does this indicate that current levels of solar activity are a more likely cause of current warming than greenhouse gases? Thank you for your consideration of my questions.

Eugene Linden: Since human greenhouse gas emissions only truly ramped up in the last century or so, it should be obvious that past warmings were the result of natural cycles (although one scholar argues that humans have had an impact through deforestation and agricultural going back thousands of years). Moreover, periodic coolings don't contradict the connection between GHG emissions and warming. For instance, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the early 90s put sufficient amounts of ash into the air to cool the planet the following year. Climate is one of the most complex systems on the planet, responding at any given time to countless pushes and pulls, but, on relatively short time frames, CO2 has tracked temperature as far back as we can reliably measure. It's one big variable that we can affect, and since we've upped it by 50%, temperatures have responded much the way climate scientists have expected. There will never be 100% certainty that the recent warming represents a response to human inputs, but the consensus is strikingly strong that it does. Moreover, it's the one thing we can do something about.

Finally, even if the current warming was entirely natural, it would still represent something that we should take very seriously. Natural climate change did in past civilizations, and we've seen the destructive potential of extreme weather just recently on the Gulf Coast.”

But then I thought:

Ah, fuck the think tank peanuts. LI is now thinking of the plot for the latest Michael Crichton novel – you know, our Rebel in Chief’s favorite expert on so called climate change. In this plot, St. Exxon (the first corporation ever to be beatified by the Vatican), trying, as usual, to save humanity, comes up with the volcano management idea. Evil environmentalists – the Osama bin Laden league for Deep Ecology – try, of course, to stop them. In the exciting last scene, Jesus Christ, played by Mel Gibson, machine guns the Laden-ites just as they are about to mess up St. Exxon’s scheme. Beautiful fadeout as Jesus turns to the CEO of Exxon – played by St. Peter – and says, in a choked up voice, “I just want my country… to love me… like I love it,” copping the finale to Rambo II – but also a wink and a nod to the idea, gaining increasing currency in the Red States, that Sly’s movie now has official gospel status.

A subplot involving St. Exxon falling deeply in M & A love with Chevron (who is pursued by a lustful, deceptive Chinee company, backed by some evil liability chasin’ lawyers) is, of course, de rigeur, since we need some nude accounting scenes – or at least nude flowsheet scenes. Hey, and to be all comme il faut and shit, how about a stand-in for you know who, toting a pellet gun loaded for bear, who tattoes cartoon images of the prophet on the buttocks of the aforementioned liability lawyers? We gotta think outside the box here, boys. Outside of the Hollywood mindset. Family values and like that. I’m going to pitch this plot to Seth."

Well, looking at this proposal, now, with an eagle eye, I can see a major flaw in it. It does have explosions. It would please the ever apoplectic male population, all pumped up on their Limbaugh brand Viagra and shit. But... it really needs to pump federal money into the South. This is, after all, pretty much the reason the U.S. exists any more -- find some reason to send another couple billion to a Peckerhead War Industry firm. I concede that, feeding the Dixie monkey wise, my simple proposal might not go over. But wait! What if we chose to explode volcanos in countries that aren't free? Couldn't we liberate them first? Which is invasion, which is moola-moola for those greasy kentucky fried fingers. And a lot of brown bodies, all torn to bits, occasionally flashed on the tv screen. Wow. A lyncherooni of an idea.

I'm seeing if Tom Delay is available for board membership of this thing.”

Little did I know that the geoengineering idea would pop up as the centerpiece of the ur piece of 00 trash, Freakonomics. Freakonomics was to the 00s what social Darwinism was to the Gilded Age – a piece of cuddly scientism cut out for the oligarch set and their multitudinous brownnosers in the press – an American press in which the economics section is invariably labeled “Business”, not “Labor”. On the principle of, who gives a fuck about labor? Freakonomics was, before anything else, boyish – in that aging boyish way that became the stylistic dominant of an era presided by an aging boy, a man whose greatest accomplishments had been cheerleading and owning a part of a baseball team. It was dreamt up by Steven Levitt, your typical freshwater motormouth, and a journalist, Stephen Dubner, who apparently turned the genius models of Levitt into a popular vernacular that could be licked up by middle managers. Freakonomics was an immediate hit in the intellectual blogosphere –in 2005, the book was the subject of a big fest at Crooked Timber, which the Crooked Timberites now look back on regretfully. It is easy to see why they liked it though – here’s a book that takes the principles of neo-classical economics seriously enough to use them as the magic key to understanding everything about life under capitalism – while assuming that capitalism is life. The idea that capitalism is life is, of course, bullshit. Capitalism is a certain distinct economic system, which has existed for a small moment in the course of human natural and written history. There are many, many matrixes of exchange that make up life, and to translate them all into terms that have to do with the artifices of mainstream economics is like translating Beethoven’s fifth into seal calls. I imagine a DJ could actually arrange bull seal snorts into something that roughly traced the melody of Beethoven’s fifth, but it would be a bold conman indeed who claimed that Beethoven’s fifth is, at bottom, about the mating habit of seals.

The Freaknomics team mounted a blog, which was represented for a while on the NYT site. The blog was a vast wreck of conservative ideology masquerading as hard economic fact. Well, this is what one would expect from a U. of Chi economist,  right? Still, sometimes the wankery went beyond the usual call of duty (less taxes! Freedom, freedom freedom!). There was, for instance, the promotion that inequality measures in America were neglecting the fact that you could buy cheaper tat at Wallmart now than ever before! There was the ongoing sexism, which crossed with the comic book nerd ethos to produce an unnerving obsession with prostitutes and porn stars. In their second book, for instance, the adorably cute authors ask the question, why aren’t more women prostitutes, because the adorably cute authors think that pussy is one of the world’s great commodities, which should be traded among those (men) who have money by women (non-nagging) who have the pussy. I think I’ve heard this conversation before, somewhere. Levitt’s humor has that 13 year old boy sexism to it that is, well, sad. I am sad that I have read it. This is a typical freakonomics post by Levitt in this vein:

“Of all the reasons anyone has ever had for getting breast implants, I’m guessing that no one ever thought of this one.
A body was recently found — a brutal murder in which the killer cut off the fingers of the victim and removed all her teeth in order to make identifying the body more difficult. One thing he hadn’t taken into account was that her breast implants would have serial numbers that would allow her to be positively identified.”
The very idea of breast implants is just a killer for our economist. Such is life, such is pathology, and such was the reactionary 00s.

Wankery on this level would, by itself, elevate Steven Levitt  and Stephen Dubner high into the wankery stratosphere. But it was their wink wink relationship with climate denialism, and their solution to global warming, as outlined in their second book and with monomaniacal fervor, on their blog, which earned them their true wankomoment. Unbelievably, what they offered up, after reiterating a few of the ripe tropes about global warming (scientists once thought that we had global cooling in the 70s! alarmists in the past worried about horse manure! Global warming is a leftist trifecta, since all the bad guys -  cars, the petro companies, suburbs – are also lefty bugabears!), this: an 18 mile high pipe to shoot sulphur into the atmosphere – basically, my manmade volcano recipe, minus the bombs.

The controversy about the Superfreakonomics books was marked a moment of change in mood, in the tone of the 00s. Contrarianism – the intellectual accompaniment to the evisceration of the middle class which provided the glee club noise – began to seem, well, not too much different from any other adventure of the right. Freakonomics had danced just close enough to the right left line that your Clintonoid liberal could hee haw along with our authors while thinking that they were engaged in serious but entertaining work – work that showed up certain liberal shibboleths. And who wouldn’t want to do that?  But in their book and subsequent posts, they showed that they weren’t only in tune with the Bushian Weltgeist, but were also willing to use Bushian logic, distort sources, and use the look over there strategy that was perfected, long ago, by the scientific krewe that developed the defense of the tobacco industry in the 50s and 60s.