7.12.08

EMERGENCE CAN NOT BE MANAGED. Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded is his latest attempt to peddle policy nostrums in sound-bite form. It's not filling Book Review No. 46 with spoilers to note that he's reacting to anthropogenic global warming, instant connectivity among the world's elite (perhaps aided by just-in-time logistics), and expanding population (much in the poorer corners of the world and increasingly aware of the prosperity elsewhere). Mr Friedman suggests these three phenomena interact in ways that have the potential to end badly. The book would be more believable if the author had stuck to the logic and the content. Mr Friedman's metaphor-chopping is a source of amusement among serious writers, and his attempts to improve on simple formulations annoy. Consider the efforts by some scientists to develop renewable energy cheaper than coal. Because somebody summed the formula in the equation "RE less than C" Mr Friedman decided that some longer, convoluted formula would be better, despite it being so long that he had to explain it again each time he used it. It is asking too much of the author to deal with the effects of the Hotelling principle for exhaustible resources. The principle suggests that renewable energy is not likely to be cheaper than coal (because the backstop technology puts an upper bound on price appreciation) but that does not preclude creativity in developing such things.

The greater error, however, is in Mr Friedman's confidence in expertise as the precondition for greener technologies, summarized at page 336.
As far as I am concerned, China's system of government is inferior to ours in every respect - except one. That is the ability of China's current generation of leaders - if they want - to cut through all their legacy industries, all the pleading special interests, all the bureaucratic obstacles, all the worries of a voter backlash, and simply order top-down the sweeping changes in prices, regulations, standards, education, and infrastructure that reflect China's long-term strategic national interests - changes that would normally take Western democracies years or decades to debate and implement. That is such an asset when it comes to trying to engineer a sweeping change, like the green revolution, where you are competing against deeply embedded, well-funded, entrenched interests, and where you have to motivate the public to accept certain short-term sacrifices, including higher energy prices, for long-term gains. For Washington to be able to order all the right changes and set up the ideal market conditions for innovation, and then get out of the way and let the natural energy of the American capitalist system work - that would be a dream.
And yes, I'm grumpy at having to work through the entire collection to get to that. Elsewhere in the book, Mr Friedman notes the fluctuations in fossil fuel prices that dampen incentives to develop renewable energy sources and wind and solar infrastructure and suggests the merits of a carbon tax as a simpler spur to such development.

Perhaps the troubles of the hot, flat, crowded world involve excess reliance on experts and planners and pundits.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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