Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Krugman, straw man, beggar, thief

In his "Slow Steaming..." column today, Paul Krugman blatantly misrepresented and trivialized Mark Buchanan's argument:
Buchanan says that it’s not possible to have something bigger — which is apparently what he thinks economic growth has to mean — without using more energy.
Wrong. Buchanan said bigger things, as a rule, use more energy. He also said that efficiencies of scale don't overturn that rule. He referred to data about economic growth and energy use, not "what he thinks economic growth has to mean":
Data from more than 200 nations from 1980 to 2003 fit a consistent pattern: On average, energy use increases about 70 percent every time economic output doubles. This is consistent with other things we know from biology. Bigger organisms as a rule use energy more efficiently than small ones do, yet they use more energy overall. The same goes for cities. Efficiencies of scale are never powerful enough to make bigger things use less energy.
Krugman disparaged Buchanan for reprising the claims and title of the book that William Nordhaus "demolished so effectively forty years ago":
...not only does he make the usual blithe claims about what economists never think about; even his title is almost exactly the same as the classic (in the sense of classically foolish) Jay Forrester book that my old mentor, Bill Nordhaus, demolished so effectively forty years ago.
I'll leave it to posterity whether or not Nordhaus "demolished" Limits to Growth. Forty years on, Brian Hayes wrote a less "blistering" critique, published in American Scientist, judging Forrester's mathematical model to be "more of a polemical tool than a scientific instrument" but concluding the book's message of limits is worth listening to. Defenders of the book have argued that Nordhaus misunderstood or misrepresented the structure of the model and whether or not the model used historical data (it did) -- the title of Nordhaus's review was "World dynamics: measurement without data."

But, following the Krugman's link to his earlier article reveals that the "foolishness" or otherwise of the book Nordhaus supposedly demolished is really beside the point. Krugman's conclusion in that earlier article directly contradicts the Pollyanna claims he is now making:
You might say that this is my answer to those who cheerfully assert that human ingenuity and technological progress will solve all our problems. For the last 35 years, progress on energy technologies has consistently fallen below expectations. 
But anyway, while the Limits to Growth stuff of the 1970s was a mess, the history of energy technology doesn’t support extreme optimism, either.
You've really got to follow the links.

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