Unhealthful News 218 – The blind polling the blind: WSJ on IWTs

No UNs for a while, but I have two right now.  The next one will be based on my current series at the Anti-Tobacco-Harm-Reduction Lie of the Day blog (which you have probably already seen if you are interested in THR, but if not, check it out).  Today’s is based on this article/poll in the Wall Street Journal which asks readers their opinion about whether the government subsidies for “alternative” electric generation, which are the only reason for anyone builds industrial wind turbines (IWTs), should be continued.  The rumor is that a reporter plans to write a story about the poll.

That fact in itself suggests a certain innumeracy:  Put out a self-administered survey on a highly contentious issue, and you get a measure of which side can better inspire their supporters to bother with the survey — not exactly an interesting or easily interpretable quantification.  In this particular case, the edge currently goes to the industry, which is not too surprising:  They have legions of paid flacks some of whom are probably sitting around voting and re-voting all day.  After all, there is only so much time they can spend pretending to be ordinary citizens writing pro-IWT comments on every single newspaper article that appears on the subject, and it does not appear they do much else.

On the opposition side, those who are most highly motivated are those concerned with the terrible health effects of IWTs, but they are not so likely to have all day to spend rigging a poll result.  In this case, the most highly motivated on each side — paid on one side, concerned citizens on the other — are joined, respectively, by the useful-idiot enviro lefties who mistakenly think that IWTs are “green” and many of the WSJ’s regular readers, who might stumble across this page, and who generally opposed the government trying to pick winners.

What makes this health news is the lack of mention of health — no mention that the most adamant opposition to IWTs comes from those of us who care about public health (or those who care about their own health if they are at risk of having them cited nearby).  I suppose that the only “people” that the WSJ cares about are the ones who are actually corporations, or who are rich enough to be able to insulate themselves from health hazards like IWTs.  The short article leading into the poll describes as the entire reason for opposition as:

Critics want to scale back or eliminate the subsidies, arguing that renewable sources have had decades to get established but still aren’t cost-competitive with conventional energy.

That is all.  The single argument they present is not even one of the many good arguments.  It is either extremely naive or a strawman.  If IWTs actually were a good thing (producing moderately efficiently, while being clean and not hurting a lot of people — which they fail on all three counts), and yet remained permanently a bit more expensive than less clean options, the subsidy would be justified.  We do not expect every actions that provides net social benefits to also provide net private benefits (well, at least those of us who realize that Atlas Shrugged is a work of fantasy, though remember, we are talking about the WSJ here).

The correct argument along those lines is something like, “the subsidies are not encouraging innovation and leading to much better technologies; rather, they are just paying for mass installations of the current bad tech which is extremely inefficient and harmful”.  To explain it in terms the WSJ should understand, the current system is like “welfare queen” entitlements, that create incentives for people to continue to live in a socially costly way; it is not at all like the goals of Clinton welfare reform which tries to provides subsidies that move people toward becoming producers rather than leeches (someone who has read Atlas Shrugged more recently than I will have to tell me if I got the terms right).

But what interested the policy analyst in me enough to write about this is actually none of those points, but the form of the survey.  It did not just ask “subsidies: good or bad?”.  It offered four answers: they [subsidies] should be increased; they should remain the same; they should decline; they should be eliminated.  Yeah, right.  I wonder how many people responding to this (other than the ones who are paid by the energy industry companies that are lining their pockets with the subsidies) could even tell you how big the subsidies are, or more important, describe it in some useful metric (even if they can recite the number, no one has any intuition for what “X billion dollars” really means, after all).  How is someone who has no understanding of the scale supposed to make a judgment about whether they are too high or low?  More to the point, since those who support the subsidies are in control of the government right now, presumably they have set the level of subsidies based on what someone thinks is not too high and not too low, based on what the marginal dollar causes to happen.  How can the WSJ possibly think that its respondents — among those who generally favor the subsidies — have any idea whether the marginal dollar is well spent or not.

Of course, as you would expect if most of the votes are indeed coming from paid industry flacks (who are usually not the brightest bulbs on the tree), almost all of the responses that favor the subsidies say they should be higher.  Presumably most of the industry’s useful idiot “greens” are doing the same thing.  They have no idea how big the subsidies are and how badly the marginal dollar is wasted (even as measured from the perspective of those who like the industry and the subsidies), but they want more more more.  I wonder if they would change their minds if they were told that the subsidies would be paid for by a highly regressive tax (which is basically and accurate description of the situation)?

Anyway, if you happen to click over to the story, please click the “eliminated” response and make a tiny little stand for people’s health over corporate welfare leeches. 

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