Does Government Only Worsens the Problems it intends to fix?

January 4th, 2015

“Government intervention never works but in fact prolongs and worsens the problems it is intended to fix.” Senator Rand Paul

I came across this quote recently while doing some research on Republican’s views of “The Road to Serfdom,” by Friedrich Hayek. Hayek is the intellectual forefather of much conservative thinking on government intervention into the economy. Paul’s statement was published in an essay he wrote for The Intercollegiate Review, a magazine for college Republicans. It is available on line at Rand Paul’s Challenge to Students.  The essay is a year old, but it seems to encapsulate Senator Paul’s hostility toward the government.

So how accurate is Paul’s statement? Does government intervention make things worse? There is no doubt that government can often be ineffective and bumbling. We see examples in the paper every day. But does that mean that government only makes things worse when it tries to fix a problem?

Let’s think about a couple of examples here in the United States, to test this theory.

After the Second World War, President Eisenhower decided that the nation had a transportation problem, and he proposed a government program to fix it. The problem was that it was extremely difficult to drive from one side of our country to another. Eisenhower had recently commanded a military force that pushed from the shores of France deep into Germany, and done much of that on Europe’s road system. Eisenhower decided that the United States needed something similar, and proposed our interstate highway system. This system is now fully built. Did it worsen the problems of national transportation?

There’s no doubt that highways have created a bunch of unanticipated problems. These range from expanding urban sprawl to the demise of small towns as commerce moved to the nearest Interstate exit. But did the government intervention into the national transportation system “prolong and worsen the problem it intended to fix” as Paul flatly states. Nope, not even close.

Here’s another example. During the creation of the nation the founders felt that it was important for the government to establish a system to protect inventors and creators, to allow them to profit from their creations as a way to spur innovation. And so they included a provision in the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson established the United States Patent Office. Did the patent office “worsen the problem it was intended to fix”? Not even remotely. The United States has the most dynamic and innovative economy in the world, largely because of the way we protect intellectual property.

But clearly these aren’t the kinds of things that Paul and other conservatives are talking about when they condemn government action. Mostly they’re talking about welfare and economic regulations. So, do these programs make things worse? It’s hard to analyze if you only focus on this country, but far more clear if you look at all the nations of the world.

Put simply, those nations with robust welfare systems have far less poverty than those nations that don’t. Just compare Western Europe with South America, or Africa. And well regulated economies are far more productive than lightly regulated economies. Compare the OECD countries (the 20 richest countries in the world) with most of the rest of the world.

Obviously there are outliers. There are a few remaining communist countries, like Cuba, Burma, Cambodia, and North Korea, and their economies are in shambles and their people in poverty. Clearly total government control of the economy as a means to ameliorate poverty does not work. But modern Western economies, with sensible regulation, are doing extremely well.

I’m sure conservatives will say I’m cherry picking positive examples, or creating a straw-man argument. But Paul said “government intervention never works.” He didn’t qualify it. I’m just holding him to his own words.

One of the knocks against Conservatives is that they are clueless about history. But they don’t seem to know much about the modern world either. Are they really unaware that countries without welfare systems are third world nations mired in poverty? Don’t they realize that countries without effective governments are chaotic failed states? Don’t they ever look at the world and see that countries with welfare systems have far less poverty than countries that don’t? Or don’t they see that the economies of the richest nations are regulated, while unregulated economies are pathetic?

I think that there are at least two causes to this problem. The first is that Fox News doesn’t do much international reporting. So Senator Paul doesn’t ever learn what goes on in the rest of the world. And he knows that his supporters don’t know either, so he can get away with making these statements. The other problem is the idea of American Exceptionalism, which allows conservatives to ignore the lessons from rest of the world. But the rest of the world exists, and it can teach us many valuable lessons. And one of those lessons is that government can fix problems.

Two-year-old Shoots Hole in NRA Theory

January 1st, 2015

On December 30, 2014, in Hayden, Idaho a two year old shot and killed his mother. The woman was shopping at Wal-Mart, with the boy and her purse in the shopping cart. She had a license for a concealed handgun, and the gun was in her purse in a special zippered pouch for a concealed weapon. Her son reached into the purse, and the gun fired, killing the woman. Presumably they boy was playing, and just thought it was a toy, or maybe it was a tragic accident and the child inadvertently hit or squeezed the trigger. The news story is not clear on the details. [Here’s the Story from Fox News .] But ….

According to a favorite gun advocate slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The idea behind the slogan is that murder is intentional, and if someone is intent on killing they will do it with whatever tool is available. The slogan strongly implies that every killing is intentional, and if a gun is not available the killer will use something else. So, according to this theory, if that toddler in Idaho hadn’t used a gun he would have killed his mother with something else. Perhaps he would have toddled to the auto supply section and grab a tire iron to bash in his mother’s brains. But clearly that idea is as absurd as it is sick. The child obviously had no intent to kill his mother (and will undoubtedly be traumatized by it for the rest of his life). Had the gun not been in his mother’s purse he may have played with her car keys or cell phone, and she would be alive today. So clearly it was the gun that killed the woman. The gun killed the woman, not the child.

Every year roughly 30,000 Americans are killed by guns. (See, http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-states) Of that, roughly 10,000 are murdered, 19,000 commit suicide, and between 500 and 1,000 are killed accidentally. [The Wikipedia Entry for Gun Violence in the United States has a good overview of these numbers.] In 2011, the last year for which data is available, 32,163 people were killed by guns. Of that 19,766 committed suicide, 11,101 were murdered, and 851 were killed by accidental discharge of a firearm. [The CDC Data is here, in Table 2 ] There is no way to know about the 10,000 murders, and it is likely that if the murderer did not have a gun he would have used something else. (I say “he” because men commit 95% of all homicides. I apologize to the female murderers out there for my sexist language.) But it is worth noting that there were 4,852 murders by other means in the United States in 2011, so some would have been committed by other means. But just as clearly it is not true of those 500 to 1000 “accidental” gun. The two year old in Hayden Idaho had no intent to kill his mother, nor did the three year old in Arizona who shot his 18 month old brother, or the three year old in Oklahoma who killed his mother. Just Google “toddler shoots…” parent or sibling and you’ll get dozens of hits of small children inadvertently killing a family member. (It’s really disconcerting.) There is no way to know what percentage of the roughly 500 to 1000 accidental deaths each year are kids killing a parent, but clearly it happens with some frequency. Other leading causes of “accidental” gun deaths are people cleaning guns, and showing off with guns. But in every one of those accidental cases there was no intent to kill.

That means that between 5% and 10% of all non-suicide gun deaths each year are accidental, with no intent to kill. And this means that in 5% to 10% of all non-suicide gun deaths each year it was the gun and not the person, that did the killing. So guns do kill people.

The NRA and gun rights advocates may not care about logic, and they certainly don’t care about the roughly 1000 people killed accidentally by guns each year. They believe that their rights, or rather their warped idea about those rights, are more important than the lives of a thousand people a year. Those people are merely collateral damage, statistical blips, background noise lost in the chatter of silly slogans.

Ten Books that Changed My Life

January 1st, 2015

Someone posted this prompt on Facebook: what are the ten books that changed your life? Most people just listed ten books, but as I thought about it for a while, I decided that each might benefit from a brief explanation. Anyway, here’s my list:

1.   The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer.

Before I read this book in my junior year in high school I thought that history was boring and meaningless. This book first cured the boring part. It was the first history that I’d read that read like a novel. It was (after the first 100 pages or so) fast paced and full of action. It was also not meaningless, perhaps because a number of my uncles had served in the War. Before reading this book I couldn’t stand history, after reading it I couldn’t get enough of history. I even got a master’s degree in history because of it.

2.   Crime and Human Nature, by James Q. Wilson & Richard Hernstein.

Are people basically good or basically bad? That’s really the wrong question. The right question is: how do people really behave? What do statistics about crime and human behavior tell us about human nature? According to this book, about one third of all young men will commit a crime when they are young, but only about 5 to 10 percent of all males are criminals – susceptible to long term nefarious and illegal behavior – and about 1 to 2 percent of all women (and for women a large percentage of crimes are committed at the behest of men). This means that most people are good most of the time, but it does mean that a few people are really bad. This should influence how we deal with other people, and approach crime control, and has many other public policy implications. But for me this insight changed how I thought about humanity.

3.   Carnage and Culture, by Victor Davis Hanson

Why does Western Society dominate the world? According to Jarred Diamond, in his book Guns Germs and Steel, it is a bit of a fluke. But according to Hanson, who wrote this book in response to Diamond’s book, the reason is because of the Greek tradition (that dominates the Western world) of rational thought, free inquiry, and democracy. It is not because of Guns, Germs, or Steel. It is not a fluke. It was because the West had developed the ability to think honestly about problems and find the best solution. So the West was able to exploit gunpowder (which had been invented in China for entertainment purposes, i.e. fireworks), and exploit printing (which had been invented in China for decorative purposes) to transmit knowledge. The West was able to exploit Guns and Steel. This concept had a significant impact on my views about world history, culture, and political philosophy.

4.   The Autobiography of Maxim Gorki.

This book combines the pathos of Dickens with the joyous boyhood adventures of Mark Twain, but a dash of clear eyed realism from a master Russian realist. I discovered Gorki from Bukowski (see below), and loved his short stories. When you read them, or this autobiography, you will understand why the Russians rebelled, and perhaps get a glimpse of how it descended first in to utter chaos and then into extreme repression.

5.   Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, by Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski blew my mind. I didn’t know you could say those things in print, and in funny and entertaining poetry to boot. Bukowski also introduced me to Gorki in his autobiographical novel “Ham on Rye.”

6.   American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 – 1964, by William Manchester.

Manchester is a brilliant writer, and in this book he had a stake in the game. He felt that General MacArthur saved his life. General Douglas MacArthur was a fascinating guy and lived an amazing life during an epic time in history, so this book covers a lot of ground. I learned about the War in the Pacific (during WWII) from this book. I also learned what it means to chose your battles. MacArthur won in the Pacific by only fighting on those islands that he absolutely needed, and simply ignored the rest. Manchester was a Marine scout in the war and knew that he and probably hundreds of thousands of fellow soldiers (American and Japanese) would have died had MacArthur followed the advice of some and fought on every island.

7.   The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon.

I read a lot of fiction. I might not be obvious from this list, but I do. Somehow in the early 1980’s the more high-brow literary fiction became overly internal, maudlin, and uninteresting and difficult to read. (My sister blames Ray Carver.) This was one of the first modern works of literary fiction that read like an old time action adventure story. It reintroduced my to contemporary literary fiction and showed me what it could do. That said, I still love Graham Green and Thomas Hardy.

8.   Liberating the Gospels, by John Shelby Spong.

To truly understand Christianity you have to understand the Bible, and to understand the Bible you have to understand when, why, and how it was written. Once you understand that, its difficult to believe in ideas like literalism, infallibility, and divinity. Once you understand the development of the Bible, and the development of Christianity, you can see through the fallacies of the views of fundamentalist Christians.

9.   The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, by Timothy Ferris.

Modern political liberalism developed contemporaneously with the scientific revolution. They actually developed hand in hand, with ideas from one feeding ideas in the other. The same ideas of reason, rationality, deduction and free inquiry that drove new ideas in science also drove new ideas in political philosophy. These changes and discoveries also drove the economy. History shows that open, rational thought (i.e. liberalism) leads to scientific advances, democratic government, and a growing economy. (There are shades of Hanson’s Carnage and Culture within,)

10.   Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

This is my favorite novel. I felt that I had to include at least one novel simply because I liked it. And it had to be either Dickens or Hemingway, since those are my favorite writers, and for some reason (see Gorki above) I have a fondness for coming of age stories, so that left Hemingway out (his coming of age stories are all short, and collected as the Nick Adams stories). David Copperfield is a close second, and few literary characters are more memorable that Uriah Heep, but overall I like this best.

And Therein Lies the Problem

October 4th, 2014

For evidence that conservatives live in a fantasy land, look no further than the current conflict over teaching American history in suburban Denver.

Recently a Republican school board member in a suburban Denver county offered a proposal for a panel to review the teaching of American History, and called for instructional material that presented “positive aspects [of American history that] promote citizenship, patriotism … respect for authority and respect for individual rights. See, Denver Post, Jefferson School Board.  But the proposal also said that the materials should not “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” [http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26601519/jeffco-school-board-curriculum-committee-idea-latest-divisive ]

The Jefferson County School Board member who presented that proposal is named Julie Williams, and is a member of a prominent and politically active conservative Republican family. [http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26620327/jefferson-county-public-schools-faces-crisis-over-school]

Others have written a great deal about the dangers of white washing history, and that is certainly true. But the real problem here is the glaring internal contradiction in these particular conservative goals. Their two goals – (1) teach patriotism, which undoubtedly in their minds includes reverence for the founders, and (2) discourage teaching anything that would promote civil strife, social disorder or disregard for the law – are mutually contradictory. The reason is that this nation’s founders were revolutionaries. They emphatically disregarded the law, they actively sought social strive, and encouraged civil disorder. So a lesson in patriotism, a lesson about the founders, will be a lesson in civil, social, and political disobedience.

The inescapable conclusion is that Ms. Williams, and the conservative school board members and members of the public who support her, know absolutely nothing about American Revolutionary War history. I suspect that they know next to nothing about any other era in American history, but I don’t have the evidence to support that. But I do have ample evidence to support my claim that she, and many conservatives who think like her, know nothing of American colonial, revolutionary, and constitutional history. And yet they claim deep and abiding admiration for that history.

This is but one of the many contradictions inherent in the conservative belief system. There are many others. They claim reverence for the free market and equal abhorrence for the American media and culture, but the culture is the purest product of a free market. They revere capitalism and venerate traditional families, but it is capitalism that has destroyed the traditional family. The worship the modern economy and loath science, but the modern American economy is a product of science. The list goes on and on: that which they most revere has produces, time and time again, that which they most loath. No wonder they are angry and troubled. And therein lies the problem with American politics.

Stand Your Ground

August 15th, 2014

According to a newly released report by a commission of the American Bar Association, stand your ground laws hinder law enforcement, and states that have enacted stand your ground laws have seen an increase in homicide.

Here’s a link to the ABA Press Release: States with stand-your-ground laws have seen an increase in homicides, reports task force

Here’s a link to the full report: ABA Stand Your Ground Report

I will weigh in after I have had a chance to read the full report, and not just the press commentary on the report.

Well Played

June 29th, 2014

Thoughts on the Marriage Equality Rulings

I’ve been hearing interesting tidbits from the many Federal Court cases around the nation striking down various state restrictions on Gay Marriage. Recently a Federal Court in Wisconsin struck down that state’s ban on gay marriage, and in the opinion the judge addressed the argument that the state should have the right to support “traditional marriage.” Polygamy, the Judge noted, was once considered a traditional form of marriage. When the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Utah’s ban on gay marriage it spent some time discussing the burden on the children of gay parents who are unable to marry.

Federal courts across the country are consistently striking down bans on gay marriage, and the rulings have contained detailed Constitutional arguments. Issues of equal protection under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments have been analyzed historically, legally, theologically, and philosophically. But, as noted, a wide variety of other issues have been addressed. It seems like nearly every conceivable argument against allowing gays to marry has been analyzed and rejected.

It is as if the courts are making some sort of coordinated effort to address every possible legal, political, or practical argument against gay marriage. If one court misses an issue, or a new argument is raised in the media or the courts, another court adds it to its ruling. Are the courts working together, colluding somehow?

It may seem like it, but the reality is that it’s the litigants that are engaged in the broad and comprehensive strategy. Here’s a little secret that most people don’t know. Judges don’t always write the Court’s opinions. They often crib their rulings from the legal briefs of the winning party.

Here’s a little bit of information on how a case works. Before trial both sides write a joint trial brief setting out the facts that are agreed and the law that they agree apply in the case. In these gay marriage cases the controlling law is obviously the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and whatever state law is at issue. Many of the basic facts in the case will also be agreed upon, such as the date the various restrictions were enacted. Both sides also submit trial briefs setting out their interpretation of how the law should apply in the case. The judge, or more commonly the judge’s law clerks, will typically do independent research to verify the law cited by the litigants, but it is not uncommon for the judge to adopt the legal reasoning and arguments of the winning side. The judge is obviously convinced by their argument, so rather than spending the time to write lengthy ruling, the court often cuts and pasts arguments from the winning party. So the arguments that the judge discusses in the ruling are very often the arguments raised by the litigants.

So the fact that courts have addressed a wide variety of different arguments is evidence of a well-developed and highly coordinated legal strategy by the groups supporting gay marriage, including the ACLU, and an organization called Freedom to Marry. These organizations are undoubtedly addressing every possible argument in their trial briefs, and setting out detail legal and historical analysis of every possible issue. If they miss an issue in one case, or if a judge gives short shrift to an issue in one case, or if a new argument gets raised in one case, the issue gets briefed in detail in every subsequent case.

So, by the time the issue of marriage equality reaches the Supreme Court there will be detailed analysis and rulings from a multitude of jurisdictions. The Supreme Court is certainly not bound by the rulings of lower courts, but the Court does have to give serious consideration to these rulings. And it will find in difficult to overturn well-reasoned rulings with detailed legal and historical analysis. Well played.

Here’s a link to a good list of marriage equality cases: http://www.freedomtomarry.org/litigation

Here’s are a couple of recent court rulings, and some of the particular topics addressed by the court.

On March 21, 2014 a U.S. District Court in Michigan struck down that states ban on gay marriage as a violation of the 14th Amendment. The court spent some time addressing a study cited by the opponents of gay marriage by an anti-gay researcher named Mark Regnerus. The judge said that the study was flawed and “not worthy of serious consideration.”

On May 19, 2014 the U.S. District Court in Oregon held that Oregon’s constitutional amendment and statutes banning the freedom to marry violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The Judge in the case, Michael McShane said that the case is not merely about civil rights and equality under the law, but about love, devotion and family.

Just a few days later a U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania struck down that state’s ban on gay marriage. The judge in that cases compared the fight over marriage equality to the fight over education equality (and equality in general) embodied in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Doom … Doom I Say

June 17th, 2014

I’ve been listening to conservatives cry doom – doom, we’re all doomed – like a deranged Ghost from the “Christmas Carol” for most of my adult life. Conservatives have been saying for as long as I can remember that our society, or culture, our economy, our nation, all are doomed.

Carter must be defeated, or all is doom. 1980 was the first year I was able to vote for President, so I remember that pretty well. And since the election of Reagan in 1980 conservatives have cried doom … doom … all is doom. If liberals and liberal policies are not stopped, the nation, the economy, society, all of it is doomed. If Clinton is elected, we’re doomed. If Obama is elected, we’re doomed.

In the 1980’s we were doomed to defeat by the Japanese. In the 90’s we were doomed by rising China, and now were doomed by a mature China and the other rising BRIC countries.

But what’s happened since 1980?

Think about the modern economy, and what technologies dominate the modern world: computers, smart phones, the internet. Guess what: all were created in the United States (and to some degree in other supposedly ossified, sissified, corrupt Western nations – important advances in smart phone technology came out of Canada and Norway.) The modern economy was made in the United States. Virtually every modern advance was created in a nation that conservatives said was rotten and decaying.

The cries of doom over the last 35 years are as constant as night following day. Every few years a new doomsayer comes along. In 2010 it was the Tea Party, and their most prominent standard bearer, Rand Paul. Now there’s a new voice in the Republican Party, David Brat, the “economic” professor who defeated Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. The singer may be different, but they’re singing the same old song: if liberals aren’t stopped, we’re all doomed.

It’s comical because it’s not only consistently wrong, but monumentally wrong.

Criminalized Speech and the First Amendment

May 19th, 2014

A few weeks ago a Lexington doctor named Cameron Schaeffer had an Op/Ed in the Lexington Herald Leader suggesting that the recent hubbub over Donald Sterling’s racists comments indicated that this nation may, in the near future, criminalize free speech. It was a bunch of right wing nonsense that was completely devoid of historical fact. He seemed to suggest that, once upon a time, we have absolutely free speech in this nation, but somehow that has changed. Here’s a link to his essay: Is the Sterling Ordeal a Step Towards Criminalizing Speech. [Note the Lexington Herald Leader often removes links.]

The essay was absurd, and I felt like somebody had to point out his blatant historical errors. And that somebody was me. Here’s my response: US History Full of Censorship.

I am always shocked that people who are supposedly educated can be so uninformed.

Rand Paul and Groucho Marx

May 6th, 2014

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was recently selected as on of Time Magazine’s 100 most Influential People. There was a brief blurb written about him by fellow Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. Paul also came up on a page with various “tools” used by a few of the Time 100, which included Rand Paul’s scalpel. Before becoming a U.S. Senator, Paul was an ophthalmologist and frequently performed eye surgeries, including removing cataracts, and he noted the satisfaction in restoring a patient’s sight. But he also noted that being a doctor taught him the value of evaluating problems and symptoms objectively, and said that he tried to be as objective in his approach to politics. He even quoted Groucho Marx.

“In medicine we try to diagnose a problem and then look for a solution. There’s a Groucho Marx comment that politics is sometimes the opposite–politicians misdiagnose problems and apply the wrong solutions. But being an eye surgeon reminds me to take a more analytical approach.”

More analytical? Like blindly following disproven theories?

I laughed, but not because of the Marx quote. Rand Paul is an adherent of what is known as the Austrian School of economics. The Austrian School is an extreme form of free market fundamentalism that believes that economic markets should be nearly totally unregulated. It is called the Austrian School because the early developers were Austrian economists, including two named Fredrick Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Many conservative politicians are enamored by the Austrian School, but curiously enough very few real economists, even deeply conservative economists, follow the Austrian School. This is probably because it has never worked in the real world, and most real economists know this. If you look at the world you can see that there are nations with highly unregulated economies. Those nations are often grouped as Third World nations. There is obviously too much regulation or government control, as every former communist country realized and as many European countries also realized before scaling back. But those countries that let the wealthy avoid taxes and let businesses avoid economic, environmental, and work place safety regulations, are not thriving. So the Austrian School of economics is pure theory.

Rand Paul’s views on foreign policy are what some have called neo-isolationist. His father (Congressman Ron Paul, R-TX) was a total isolationist, but Rand is much more nuanced. But his foreign policy views trouble most main-stream politicians, including many Republican and Conservative politicians. They rightfully note that this nation tried to disengage from international affairs after the First World War, with disastrous results. So Paul’s foreign policy views are based not on a rational analysis of the real world, and its myriad problems, but on a petty and truculent disdain for the rest of the world. It is a view based on a fantasy world, and not a rational analysis of the real world.

Paul’s views of history are also based more on a fantasy version of history than real history. Not long ago Senator Paul went to Howard University and lectured the students on why they should be Republicans. The main reason was that Lincoln (the first Republican President) freed the slaves and that many of the early advocates of the Civil Rights movement were Republicans, particularly from the northeast. He also noted that it was largely Democrats who opposed abolition, back in the middle of the 19th Century, and Southern Democrats who opposed the Civil Rights movement in the middle of the 20th Century. All of this is absolutely true, but Paul seemed to have forgotten Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which was designed to turn southern Democrats into Republicans based on racial resentment. Paul didn’t know this but his audience at Howard, one of the jewels in the crown of historically black colleges, knew modern history very well. They knew very well that Republicans used to be for civil rights, but the modern Republican Party, since Nixon, has been home to racists, and has aggressively pushed to end programs that help minorities including blacks participate in society, including attempts to scale back the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and to restrict black voting. So Paul’s views on history are also not based on a rational analysis of fact, but on a rigid adherence to theory.

It was interesting that he quoted Groucho Marx, because his statement was comical.

The Simple Science of Climate Change

May 1st, 2014

The critics of the science of global climate change act as if climatology and the science if global climate change are somehow complicated, obscure, or esoteric. They also act as if it is a new-fangled theory, dreamed up by modern day Luddites. Both are simply not true.

The science of climate change is very basic, very simple. Most people have personal experience with the underlying science behind “global warming.” Most of us have done a simple science experiment, probably in High School, where we added salt into water and noted that it changes the freezing point. The basic idea is that an impurity in a solution changes the physical properties of the solution. Adding salt to water changes the freezing point.

Air is a gaseous solution of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and some trace elements. There is also gaseous – or vaporous – water in the air. Changes in these elements, or in other impurities in the air, change the physical properties of the air, particularly its ability to retain heat.

Believe it or not, must people have first-hand experience with this phenomena. Humidity, which is the measure of water vapor in air, changes the ability of air to retain heat. Most everyone knows this. The humidity in the air is why it typically stays warm at night in the summer. If, for example, it gets up to 86 degrees on a humid summer day, it might only cool off to the low 70’s at night. But if it gets up to the same 86 degrees on an early fall day, a day with low humidity, it may cool off into the 50’s at night. Anyone who has spent time in the desert has also experienced this effect. It may get into the 90’s or 100’s during the day, but it often cools down into the 40’s and 50’s at night. Places in the tropics, where the humidity is high, may also reach the upper 90’s during the day, but only cool into the low 80’s at night. The reason is that the water vapor in the air helps the air retain heat, or in the case of the desert, the lack of moisture in the air allows the air to cool quickly once the sun is down.

This is part of what is known as the greenhouse effect. The idea was first developed by the French scientist Joseph Fourier in the 1820’s. A British scientist named John Tyndall did studies in the 1850’s that helped explain why water vapor in the atmosphere held heat. He also said that other impurities in the air, including carbon, could help the atmosphere retain heat. Finally a Swedish named Svante Arrhenius put it all together in what is now known as the “Greenhouse effect”. There are two components. One component is that the impurities in the air alter the heat retention properties of the air, and the other component is that the impurities in the air alter the ability of the atmosphere to block infrared radiation emanating from the planet. So humidity allows the air to retain heat. Arrhenius did his work in the later early 1900’s.

Arrhenius also noted that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause the atmosphere to retain heat. Arrhenius actually thought that heating the atmosphere would be a good thing, and would help prevent a new ice age which might destabilize humanity. In a book called “Worlds in the Making” published in English in 1908 he said that if “the quantity of carbonic acid [CO2] in the air should sink to one-half its present percentage, the temperature would fall by about 4°; a diminution to one-quarter would reduce the temperature by 8°. On the other hand, any doubling of the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air would raise the temperature of the earth’s surface by 4°; and if the carbon dioxide were increased fourfold, the temperature would rise by 8°.” (p53) [See, e.g. the American Institute of Physics, which has an excellent history of the science behind Global Climate Change at: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm]

His numbers were off for a number of reasons, including the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide, but his description of the basic science of global warming, or climate change, was dead on. Raising the amount of carbon dioxide (and other carbon based impurities) in the atmosphere alters the ability of the atmosphere to retain heat and causes the atmosphere, and the planet as a whole, to heat up.

This has been the dominant model of climatology ever since (with a brief foray into global cooling, as discussed below). So we have known for well over 100 years that adding carbon to the atmosphere would warm the planet. The terminology changed recently because it was clear that the impact was not simply warming. The additional heat in the atmosphere manifests itself in disruption of normal weather patterns, and can result, as it did the past winter, in unusually cold temperatures in some regions. So now we use the more accurate terminology of “climate change” but the scientific principles remain the same. They are simple, and well established scientific principles, and they are principles that have been around for over 100 years.