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If Trump Is Waging a War on Facts, What Should I Do?

In a single, very personal way, I benefited from Trump’s election victory. It led to an amazing mother-daughter bonding experience last weekend when I took my 14-year-old daughter to the Women’s March on Washington.

My own crowd shot
My own crowd shot from the Women’s March on Washington

It may not surprise blog readers that I voted against Trump in the election. After all, I’m a Californian who thinks deeply about climate change and environmental policy, values facts, cares about social justice, free speech… the list goes on. After the election, I felt an intense maternal instinct to show my daughter that many people were vehemently opposed to the racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, etc. articulated – if that’s the right verb to describe policymaking by tweet – by our President. And, I was fortunate to have enough frequent flier miles to fund our trip.

In any case, the march, subsequent debates about liberal alliances, and discussions with my colleagues about what the next four years might bring for energy and the environment have led me to do a lot of soul searching about how I spend my days and how much I’m contributing to the common good.

In particular, I’ve written blog posts that highlight problems with existing clean energy or environmental policies. I’ve expressed skepticism of off-grid solar in Africa, some energy efficiency programs, and the benefits of rooftop solar.

I’m wondering, though, if I should hold back in the coming years? In the era of fake news and “alternative facts”, is a reasoned critique of some part of an environmental policy more likely to be used by opponents to kill it entirely?

I’ve contemplated an answer to this question on several levels:

Practical there will be many fewer environmental and clean energy policies to critique in the coming years, so it doesn’t matter what I say.

But, this isn’t a satisfying answer. While it’s very likely true at the federal level, California already seems to be stepping up its game around climate change. And, as a local, it’s in many ways easier for me to engage here.

la-me-pc-jerry-brown-climate-change-republican-president-20150805

So, if California is going to move into even more of a leadership role on climate change and other environmental policies, that’s all the more reason to get it right.

PrincipledI’m an academic and I uncover facts. Facts speak for themselves so I shouldn’t be swayed by politics.

I’m all for this, but it oversimplifies. I have the latitude to pick which projects I spend time on, and I try to prioritize policy-relevant topics. But, the election has changed what’s policy-relevant and the range of potential policy levers. With many treasured energy and environmental policies now on the chopping block, I need to recognize that my research and blogs could be received differently in this new political environment.

Metaphysical – critiques are an inevitable part of life as an energy economist.

24-221s15Almost every economist – from labor to macro – has what I would describe as “cancer research envy.” A number of us have been in situations where we’re vying for attention, say at an event with big campus donors, with a medical researcher who seems to be making progress on something that could help in the fight against cancer. It’s hard to get the crowd riled up about tax policy or a subtle critique of cap-and-trade next to that.

But, at some level, what we are doing is even more basic research than the molecular chemist behind the cancer discoveries. That’s because economists do research that helps all of us understand and ultimately decide how much money goes to cancer researchers instead of diabetes and to medical research instead of more virtual reality video games. What government allocations, philanthropic decisions or tax policies cause cancer researchers to get more or fewer resources? And, why did the creative and driven scientist decide to go into medical research and not investment banking? At the most basic level, economics is about how societies allocate scarce resources.

Economists have a lot in common with my paternal grandmother who was a teenager during the Great Depression. We absolutely hate waste. (My grandmother kept a refrigerator shelf full of the free ketchups from McDonalds.) Rooftop solar may do some good for the environment, but if it’s not the best way to reduce climate change and local pollution, I’m going to write blogs that criticize it.

After all, if we’re spending too much money fighting climate change, that’s money that we could be spending on lots of other things that society values, like cancer research.

images-2So, I think I need to keep uncovering new facts and writing blogs to help fine-tune the policies and decisions on energy and the pic-make-america-great-again_millsenvironment. Just remember, a dollar saved on energy policy is a dollar we can use somewhere else, whether it’s buying yarn to knit a pink pussy hat or buying a “Make America Great Again” hat – whatever suits your fancy.

 

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Catherine Wolfram View All

Catherine Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, Co-Director of the Energy Institute at Haas, and a Faculty Director of The E2e Project. Her research analyzes the impact of environmental regulation on energy markets and the effects of electricity industry privatization and restructuring around the world. She is currently implementing several randomized control trials to evaluate energy efficiency programs.

19 thoughts on “If Trump Is Waging a War on Facts, What Should I Do? Leave a comment

  1. Seconding Jonathan Koomey and Janice Beecher, Trump’s election is another indication that the basic economic paradigm has flaws. Specifically, I refer to the assumption that “efficiency is what matters; distributional issues are second order and should be ignored.” The March on Wall Street was a similar complaint.
    So I hope you will devote a little bit of time to thinking about broader issues than the standard energy economics paradigm. A California example is the distributional effects of rooftop solar energy. Until recently rate structure creates a major subsidy for homeowners. Who ends up paying that subsidy? Renters and the poor. Adding inefficiency to the inequity, PV panels end up in high income areas near the coast (lots of coastal fog) and fewer in lower income areas inland. I think MORE criticism of energy policy is well warranted. As Severin and you have provided on this blog.
    And we are still living with a 20-year old naive belief that corn-to-ethanol was in some way virtuous. The political system (excess Senate power of midwestern states) seemingly guarantees that we are stuck with it indefinitely. So yes, call foul on knee-jerk environmental and other policies!

    • art2science;

      Your comment about how Trump got elected is a good one. The income inequality in the US is astoundingly bad and getting worse with each decade. There are a lot of working class people who have been left behind as the US economy grew and were easy prey for Trump’s pied-piper tune.

      Also you essentially captured the inequity in the way residential solar is currently subsidized through net metering when combined with inefficient retail rate structures (and virtually all residential rate structures across the country are inefficient – California being among the worst). But residential solar is not only inequitable, it is also economically inefficient because the environmental benefits it provides can be had for about half the cost through large-scale solar.

  2. Do not be dismayed. “The ideas of economists and political philosophers … are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.”
    — Lord Keynes

  3. Catherine, you are absolutely right — if anything we need to do more. A very astute and successful lobbyist friend told me some years ago, “Never let a cheap shot go unanswered — the public at large may not always be well enough informed to distinguish cheap shot from fair critique.” However, we are. That doesn’t mean just being reactive, but rather taking the opportunities we have to state what the evidence says and call out alternative facts, without getting in the gutter. Those alternative facts are not just falsehoods; they have the capacity to do considerable harm.

  4. How to minimize the longterm-lasting effects of trumpocracy is where we focus our energy. Yes indeed the shortterm adds to longterm. Many of the exec orders can be overridden but SCOTUS decisions tend to be longer lasting. [lack of and poor] Education choices have even longer effects. Disenfranchisement.

    Best wishes and prayers for restraining the spread of trumpicracy.

  5. I appreciate this blog and am in agreement: California should lead on climate change based on reason and facts, rather than being a knee-jerk counterweight to irrational federal policies.

  6. Thanks Catherine – I’ve been wondering something similar: Are we doing enough as academics to fight in the war on facts? Does sticking to our research and fact-producing make us irrelevant in this battle? How can we leverage our research more effectively to impact policy and policy makers, if the facts are not what carry the day?

  7. Another thoughtful post. My only note is that we sometimes fail to recognize that economics, its powerful paradigm and its practice, are also very value laden. However important, efficiency is a criterion, not an objective. Rights, values, and principles must guide and often constrain policy choices, and the sacrifice of efficiency should be acknowledged but not shamed. We are testing this now an hourly basis.

    • Very important point, Janice.

      However, once an objective has been determined we should pursue it in an efficient manner, i.e., either at lowest cost or at maximum benefit under a fixed budget constraint.

      A good example of this is residential solar PV. Virtually all of the benefits of rooftop solar can be accomplished with large-scale solar at about one-half the cost. So how can we reasonably justify the huge subsidies that go to residential solar PV, which substantially exceed those to large-scale solar?

      • How you measure the relative costs and benefits of solar is a useful example. How do you account for long-run deferral of distribution and transmission investment (the latter often miscalculated in LCOE models)? What are the risk issues of concentrating decision making within a single utility and a few generators vs. distributed decision making? What are distributional issues of economic activity which in turn drives energy use? What are the integrative properties of distributed solar vs utility scale, e.g., transportation and building electrification? What are the political economic dynamics of being bound to a central network utility vs. being able to rely on competitive markets for energy sources? All of these are questions that can be usefully addressed by economists.

        • Mcubedecon,

          There are well developed methodologies for measuring the benefits of small-scale solar vs. large-scale solar, including the impact on transmission and distribution investment deferrals. However, these methodologies must be evaluated on a distribution system-specific and resource location basis. Generally the value of these deferred investments are not all that large because most distribution systems today have overcapacity and load growth is slow or even negative.

          Incidentally, large-scale solar (i.e. 10 MW or larger) is not limited to projects connected to the bulk power system in remote locations. Most community solar projects that connect to distribution systems are larger than 10 MW. These projects offer substantial economies of scale over residential rooftop solar while still qualifying as distributed energy resources.

          Large-scale solar operates in a competitive environment because the projects are selected through competitive contract bidding.

          It sounds like the “political economic dynamics” you referred to describes the people that hate the utility industry and do not want to be subjected to monopoly control even if it costs them more for their electricity. That’s ok – so long as those people bear the full costs of their decisions. The problem is that they expect others to subsidize them, as is the case with net metering of residential solar.

          Lastly, all investor-owned utilities are subject to rate regulation that severely limits their ability to raise their rates. The problem often resides not with the utility but with the regulators (including the CPUC, which is responsible for California’s ill-conceived and inefficient tiered-rate structures).

          I have a paper coming out in the February issue of Pubic Utilities Fortnightly that compares the cost of residential vs large-scale solar, including the subsidies that each receive in 15 selected states spanning the country.

  8. One thing to do is reconsider the economists’ love affair with “optimality”. There will be nothing optimal about policy in the age of Trump. That means solar panels on homes may be all we get in some red states, and that’s OK.

    The real world doesn’t match up with the models. People aren’t rational, they satisfice and have other cognitive limitations. Cobb-douglas production functions (which embody constant returns to scale) don’t accurately describe the real world (which is dominated by increasing returns). Transaction costs are not trivial in many cases. And information is asymmetric, costs a lot to gather, and is often unavailable to decision makers. Trump is a shot across the bow to people who believe in optimality (and in evidence-based decision making more generally, which is a different, but related, conversation).

    • LOL!

      Actually, Trump’s “shot across the bow” is to anyone who deals in facts and reality vs. the “alternative facts” that exist in Trump’s delusional world. Let’s be honest, Trump is a threat to rationality in general.

    • Jonathan, I would go further to critique economists’ love of “efficiency” and the corresponding aversion to discussing “equity.” There is in fact much more cross over than most economists seem willing to acknowledge. For example, increasing societal inequity has been found to reduce growth rates. And much too often economists fail to point out in benefit-cost analyses that the “losers” should receive compensation from the “winners” to achieve true efficiency.

  9. Kudos Cathy,

    I love your comments!

    And I applaud your taking the time to fly to Washington for the Woman’s march against Trump. I was there too – but then I live in the Washington DC area.

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