Bullet Trains, Green Jobs and ‘The War Between Data and Storytelling’

May 15, 2012

By Chris Reed

SAN DIEGO — The smug, insufferably superior politics of the faculty lounge have gone mainstream on the Left in the past decade to the point where many “progressive” pundits and Democratic lawmakers openly act as if it is a given that their side always knows best and that those who disagree are dimwits, rednecks or charlatans.

This was on full display in a recent post by Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, which carried the headline, “The War Between Data and Storytelling”:

Krugman the liberal is all about the data: he hauls out charts, models, ‘signatures,’ and international comparisons. Brooks, by contrast, barely admits that data even bears on this question. He’s all about telling a plausible story: the chickens of globalization, failing education, high federal debt, and political sclerosis have finally come home to roost, so what do you expect? Of course the economy is in tatters.

“You see this play out on TV too. Conservatives tell a story, and Krugman then explains impatiently that the data simply doesn’t back up what they’re saying. Every week it plays out the same way. It’s like a kabuki show.”

I laughed so hard when I read this that I was at risk of breaking a rib. Why? Because I came upon Drum’s onanistic ode to the smarts of his side just hours after reading two amazingly damning passages in “The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery,” Noam Scheiber’s new book about economics policy-making in the Obama administration.

The first part involves the sophisticated way Obama’s aides decided where to spend tens of billions in the stimulus package they would soon present to Congress. This is from Page 102:

“In December [2008], the economic team dutifully prepared a list of drab but high-bang-for-your-buck outlays to [Rahm] Emanuel. The list included … $20 billion to repair existing roads and bridges, $5 billion to repair public housing units and another $5 billion to upgrade sewage treatment facilities. …

“Emanuel’s brother, Ezekiel, a doctor who was joining the administration as a health care adviser, happened to be staying with the future chief of staff when the list arrived via fax. “There’s nothing that really gets my heart racing,” the brother later complained. “What would get your heart racing?” Rahm Emanuel asked glumly. “I don’t know. How about high-speed rail — getting from New York to D.C. in 90 minutes?” Within days, some $20 billion in high-speed rail investments had immaculately materialized on the list.”

Are you kidding me? The Obama administration’s obsession with high-speed rail began as a way to get Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s heart racing? This is at the root of the president’s determination to trick/bully California and other states into building immense boondoggles by providing them initial billions until the projects became too big to fail?

Bullet train

Just last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Sacramento to warn the Legislature it better launch construction of the California’s bullet train soon or it risked losing the $3.3 billion in federal funds that had come its way because of Doc Zeke. The fact that California has less than 20 percent of the funds in hand that it needs for the $68 billion project and no prospects for outside investment went unmentioned by LaHood. Instead, he exhorted the broke state government to make the bullet train a priority — and, incredibly, Gov. Jerry Brown appears to agree.

Yo, Kevin Drum. Yo, Paul Krugman. This is not the triumph of “facts” over “storytelling.”

But what’s incredible is that, on the very next page of Scheiber’s book, there’s an even more depressing/appalling/insane anecdote. President Obama has spent three-plus years talking about how green jobs will rescue the economy. All along, he’s known it was a lie. The book reads:

“Energy was a particular obsession of the president-elect’s, and therefore a particular source of frustration. Week after week, [economics adviser Christina] Romer would march in with an estimate of the jobs all the investment in clean energy would produce; week after week, Obama would send her back to check the numbers. “I don’t get it,” he’d say. “We make these large-scale investments in infrastructure. What do you mean, there are no jobs?” But the numbers rarely budged. The U.S. clean energy industry was so microscopically small that even doubling or tripling the size of it, a major accomplishment that could take years, would produce an insignificant number of jobs relative to the size of the country’s workforce.”

So Obama has understood this since before he took office, thanks to the honest counsel of the UC Berkeley professor who would become chairwoman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. Yet he hasn’t changed course, constantly hyping the “green jobs” narrative and continuing to throw billions at Solyndra and similar projects while being hostile to the thriving conventional energy industry and indifferent to the larger private-sector economy.

Yo, Kevin Drum. Yo, Paul Krugman. Who’s using data? Who’s engaging in storytelling?

Green jobs

This is all particularly galling in California. The green jobs cult is so powerful in both Sacramento and the media that one routinely hears the absurd narrative that a 2006 state law forcing a gradual unilateral switch to cleaner but much costlier forms of energy will help the state’s economy, not create a huge competitive disadvantage. The much more likely result is that we’ll look back at the present 11 percent unemployment rate as the good old days.

We’re also home to the only remaining state-federal bullet train project. Other states having figured out that high-speed rail is incredibly costly, requires perpetual operational subsidies, and doesn’t carry nearly enough passengers to substantially reduce congestion and pollution.

But we have a Democrat-dominated Sacramento, our state leaders are advised by lots of sharp Krugman acolytes, and we’ve got Kevin Drum dispensing wisdom from his home in Orange County, so it’s just a matter of time before data triumphs, storytelling recedes and prosperity blooms.

If anyone out there actually believes this, please be in touch. I’ve got a subdivision in Riverside County I’d like to sell you.

Reed is an editorial writer for the U-T San Diego newspaper (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune) and runs the Calwhine.com politics blog.



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