The Daily Show, Cap and Trade, and Scientific Literacy

jonstewart The Daily Show, Cap and Trade, and Scientific LiteracyWatching Jon Stewart use Capn’ Crunch as the logo for climate cap and trade regulation the other night started me thinking about the need for our society to get more sophisticated about its understanding of economics, policy, and science. My reaction to the pitiful state of our public policy dialogue is what you might expect from someone who teaches public administration at a university. While Stewart claims to just be a comedian, he is very influential and usually is both smart and correct. He just missed the point this time; I guess he couldn’t resist the Capn’ Crunch gag.

It’s true that, under cap and trade, companies receive permits to pollute. But it’s also true that the permits gradually reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses they are allowed to emit.  For the record, it’s not just rich companies that get to buy permits to pollute, but clean companies that get to sell them. The idea is to get as much pollution reduction as possible at the least possible cost. There are two basic alternatives to cap and trade: 1. a simple cap—what is often called command and control regulation; or 2. a tax on carbon. By setting a cap or tax on pollution, you are still allowing it to take place—and so it is still “permission to legally pollute.” An out and out prohibition on carbon dioxide emissions is infeasible, since it would end economic life as we know it. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show would be taken off the air, since there would be no electricity to run our televisions. That would be a shame, since it’s my favorite TV show.

The problem of global warming is a complicated one, and it is only the most visible of the impacts of our growing technological capacity. Our economic and political lives are becoming more complicated and more difficult to manage. We benefit from these technological marvels, but we are more vulnerable as a result of them.  The growing complexity of economic life and financial transactions has been further complicated by the increased technical and scientific content of the goods and services provided by our post-industrial society. For example, the free market marvel of Henry Ford’s Model T has been replaced by today’s highly regulated automobile—a vehicle that includes pollution control technology, required safety equipment, and a range of computer controls and other technologies. Similarly, American farming has come a long way from “40 acres and a mule” to become a highly mechanized, computer-controlled agribusiness. 

Public policy requires an understanding of science and technology to be effective. Farming practices influence food safety, public health, and water supplies, and even generate ethical issues that stem from cloning and genetic engineering. Our public officials cannot regulate those activities in the public interest if they do not understand the science and technology upon which they are based. How can one create policy on “how clean is clean” at a toxic waste site—how far clean-up must proceed before it is complete—without some understanding of the transport, toxicity, and latency of the individual and interacting chemicals?

The names Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison are well known and are of a time when technology and the economy was simple enough for inventors to become “heroes” and even players in the national economy.  Today’s version of these innovators, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, may not be “inventors,” but are technically sophisticated managers who depend on huge R & D machines to develop new products. They continue the 20th century practice that tied economic growth to technological innovation.

New products, made with new and more efficient production techniques, are constantly introduced and upgraded: autos, electricity and illumination, refrigeration, air conditioning, radio, telephones, black and white TV, color TV, digital TV, main frame computers, laptop computes, satellite communication, air travel, cell phones, Blackberries, the Internet, and computer software. Modern economic life is dominated by the development and introduction of new technologies.

Just as economic life is dominated by science and technology, public policy issues are increasingly shaped by scientific and technological developments as well. Understanding public policy requires increased levels of scientific literacy. For example (not an exhaustive list):

• National security: Arms, aircraft, submarines, ships, missiles, atomic weapons, and spy satellites are all subject to constant technological change and advancement. Modern warfare is dominated by the importance of new technology and the ability or inability to develop counter-measures to these new technologies.
• Health care. From immunizations to MRIs, health care and the associated calculation of costs and benefits are constantly changing due to the development of new drugs and technologies. Moreover, the effect of the use of non-medical technologies on human health requires both an understanding of those technologies and of their impact on human biology and chemistry. People are living longer and healthier lives as a result of medical technologies. These technologies are reshaping our economies, societies, and politics in profound ways that we are only beginning to understand.
• Environmental Protection and Sustainability. The entire range of human activity influences a web of biological relationships in our ecosystems that eventually lead back to humans and their health. We are learning more every day about the science of our planet, how it is changing due to human impacts and what we need to do to minimize our negative impact or “footprint.” We need to learn more about how to provide food, water, energy, and other resources based on the principles of reuse and sustainability.

Scientific and technical literacy is essential for understanding and governing the modern world. To maximize the benefits and reduce the costs of using new technologies, decision-makers must develop a more sophisticated understanding of the science of the new technologies they are selling or trying to regulate. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, engineers knew that the toxic waste they were dumping the ground could kill people and ruin the environment, but the business leaders they worked for were largely ignorant of those scientific facts.  Most of the elected leaders responsible for the communities “hosting” these dumpsites did not even know they existed or, if they did, that they were dangerous. At the infamous Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, the Hooker Chemical Company sold the land they dumped chemicals on to the local government for a dollar. The community then built a school on top of the site, with a playground directly over the dump. Eventually, the chemicals leached off the site, causing great harm to the local community. It is difficult to know how much it will cost us to clean up this nation’s toxic waste, but the job is far from over and the bill is probably over $100 billion. Ignorance was far from bliss. In the 21st century we need to do a better job of teaching our leaders to understand science and technology. 

In addition to understanding science, last year’s Wall Street meltdown should also convince us that we need our leaders to develop a deeper understanding of finance as well.  The media can play a role in increasing our scientific and economic literacy, or they can focus on death squads, the President’s birth certificate or cute word plays on “cap’n trade.” A cheap laugh is always better than a vicious lie, so I’ll keep tuning into The Daily Show—since even on the rare occasions that he is wrong, Jon Stewart always does his job and makes us laugh.