Confirming the Academic Stereotype

LA Times Festival of BooksIf it hadn’t happened to me, I don’t think I would have believed it.  It seemed like a caricature that SNL or even Rush Limbaugh might invent.  It was almost funny at the time, but upon further reflection isn’t funny in the least.  It’s pretty scary actually.

I attended the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books once again over the week-end. As always, it was engaging and interesting.  I learned some more about ideas and authors I wanted to learn more about and discovered some new ones too.  But one bizarre experience (sadly) takes the cake.

I attended a panel Sunday on Sustainability in a Global Economy.  It is a topic that both interests and matters to me. Very smart and well-informed people have varying points of view on this difficult and vexing subject (compare the views of Jeremy Grantham with those of Ramez Naam, for example), and I wanted to gain some valuable perspective from people I assumed to be experts.

Early on during the panel, Craig Stanford made what I thought was an excellent point. He explained that efforts to save great apes — the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan — have been aided greatly by the advent of eco-tourism, which provides a clear economic incentive for individuals and governments to protect these marvelous creatures.  It’s Econ 101, of course.  People respond to incentives. Stanford emphasized that we should expect such incentives to work and I took it as implicit in what he said that providing such incentives is a good thing generally, even if dangerous in any given particular.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the panel discussion ignored that concept utterly.  A number of sustainability issues were broached — often quite important and even obvious (e.g., the bottled water industry provides no real benefit due to the quality of American tap water generally while doing a great deal of harm due to the plastic waste it creates) — but the only proposed solutions discussed or offered involved governmental prohibition, sanction or taxation.  Not once after Sanford’s opening remarks was any incentivized solution suggested or proffered.  To be clear, I do not necessarily oppose governmental regulation and I even support it when I think it has a realistic chance of accomplishing its intended purpose at a reasonable cost under the circumstances.  But I think people acting in their own perceived self-interest to accomplish the same thing is a decidedly better option.

At the end of the panel, questions were called for and I responded.  I took the microphone and pointed out the disconnect I saw between Stanford’s opening statements and subsequent comments.  Since the solutions the panelists had suggested would all cost jobs and hurt the economy (e.g., a heavy tax on bottled water would almost surely result in job losses in that industry as aggregate demand lessened), I wondered whether it was practical to suggest them without some countervailing economic benefit and if the panelists had any economic incentives to propose in order to make the suggested economic harm more palatable. 

My question was not merely appropriate — it was (and is) vital. As Paul Krugman had pointed out that very same morning in The New York Times, the economy is still weak and unemployment — particularly chronic unemployment — remains an enormous problem.  Sustainability is a worthy objective generally, but if the economic costs of achieving it are deemed too high, nothing will get done.  An economic incentive to achieve a worthy goal simply makes sense whenever and wherever possible.  I wondered if the panelists had any to offer.

However, I was completely blown off.  Without a single word to me or in response to my question, the panel moderator simply moved on to another questioner.  No panel response was solicited. No panel member said a thing.  It was astonishing.  The silence was deafening.

As Stanford emphasized, economics and perceived self-interest have driven the increased protection of the great apes.  It seems to me that sustainability is most achievable if and when it is thought to make economic sense as well as moral and environmental sense. Apparently the panel did not see this issue as worthy of even cursory discussion.

Instead, while I was still posing my question, panelist James Steele was gesticulating wildly to get the moderator‘s attention so as to call upon another questioner, a particular questioner in fact.  And, after he and the panel refused even to address my question (much less answer it), he did.  He called upon Steele’s designee, a representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party in full red (tee-) shirt regalia.  But she did not really ask a question. Rather, she promoted the Party’s booth at the Festival and advocated overturning the current “system” via revolution in order to accomplish and enforce what she perceived to be the correct result before the world was destroyed. 

The panelists were eager to respond to this “question.”  Steele suggested that we were perhaps totally screwed anyway (already) and Sarah Banet-Weiser gravely intoned that perhaps it is easier for “us” to ponder the end of the world than the end of capitalism.  At this point, the moderator determined that Ms. Banet-Weiser’s comment was a good note on which to end.

After the session, a surprising number of people approached me to say they were surprised at the way my question was ignored.  A few were careful to add that they had an affinity to the panel’s apparent point of view but thought my question had merit and deserved at least some sort of response.

I believe in the First Amendment and in free speech.  I don’t think any question should necessarily be off-limits.  That goes for me and for the Revolutionary Communist Party as well.

The panel apparently disagrees. 

The American political Right is anxious to stereotype the Left (and particularly the academic Left) as wildly extreme politically, drastically out of touch with reality, arrogantly condescending, anxious to stifle dissent, and aggressively intolerant of any position or thought deemed contrary to their own.  Quite obviously, sometimes they are more than happy to comply.


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