Al Gore, High Priest of the Climate Fundamentalists, once said Americans are addicted to “short-term thinking.” He is correct. Even in America’s business world, which is presumably rational, timelines often stretch no further than the next quarter’s earnings reports. To think ahead by spans of generations or more is not very common.
Sadly, however, Al Gore fails to emphasize—for reasons either cynical or simply because he suffers from the same affliction as most everyone else—that Americans are also victims of “scope insensitivity.”“Scope insensitivity” is a mouthful, but understanding the meaning of this term is key to understanding many of the policy failures of America, especially in recent decades.
Scope insensitivity is the inability of a person, or a voting bloc, or a nation, to understand simple quantitative proportions, which if understood, would cast a policy issue in an entirely different light. Simply put, because of scope insensitivity, the logical conclusions one might rationally find obvious are eclipsed by emotional arguments.
If you suffer from scope insensitivity, the relative importance of variables affecting a policy choice become incomprehensible. When a population suffers from scope insensitivity, policies are decided based on whoever has the most money and the most compelling emotional appeal. Here are three interrelated examples:
How Scope Insensitivity Enables Flawed Policies
Let’s assume all of the catastrophic projections about global warming are actually true; that we immediately have to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations to avoid them, and doing this is something under our control. In pursuit of this goal, in California, for example, we are going to destroy all semi-rural suburbs with subsidized high-density infill, coerce people out of their cars, and carpet the landscape with solar farms, wind farms, and biofuel farms. But is this feasible and likely to make any difference in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations? The answer is an absolute and irrevocable no.
According to the most authoritative source available, the 2020 edition of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, currently 85 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuel. “Renewables,” including wind, solar, and biofuel, only contribute 4 percent—the rest comes from nuclear and hydroelectric power. And even if we were able to deliver to everyone in the world, including Americans, a per capita energy allocation equal to half what people in the United States consume today, energy production in the world would have to double.
There is no way the global economy can function without fossil fuel. It is inspiring and appropriate to work to accelerate the deployment of non-fossil fuel energy. But it is completely impossible to stop burning fossil fuel. Only gross scope insensitivity would allow anyone to come to such a conclusion. And absent this conclusion, policy options change considerably.
Accepting immigrants is part of America’s heritage as a nation. But Americans appear unable to grasp the difference between allowing immigration sufficient to make up for low birthrates—something all developed nations are experiencing—and allowing immigration that based on current rates will cause America’s population to increase by nearly 60 million people in the next 30 years. Is this desirable, and if so, for whom?
American policy ought to reflect a rational calculation of what rate Americans want their total population to increase—then taking into account the higher birthrates of immigrants recently arrived—should calculate how many additional immigrants may be admitted every year. Scope insensitivity prevents this calculation from being made.
Instead, Americans are led to believe they must absorb all the dispossessed, the persecuted, the destitute, who wish to come here from all over the world. But simple calculations indicate conclusively that even if Americans doubled or tripled their already high rate of immigration, it would make virtually no dent in the number of people in the world who suffer these afflictions. According to the World Bank, 1.8 billion people live in poverty, and of those, 708 million live in extreme poverty. Just the people living in extreme poverty around the world are twice as numerous as the entire population of the United States.
The realistic way for Americans to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world is to assist them with economic development.
This is perhaps the most emotional issue of all, evidenced by the sustained and violent nationwide reaction to the death of George Floyd last April. Across America, the rhetoric was extreme. Defund the police. Stop the “slaughter” of black men by police. Stop the “genocide.” But it is possible to acknowledge individual tragedies and strive to improve without condemning the entire system. Basic quantitative realities must inform discussion and decisions regarding allegations of racism. For example:
There are more than 800,000 sworn police officers in America, authorized to make arrests and use deadly force. Over 50 million Americans have at least one encounter with a police officer per year, usually involving something minor such as a traffic stop. Police make over 10 million arrests each year. In confrontations with unarmed people over the past decade, only between 50 and 100 have been shot per year by police, about the same number as police who are killed in hostile encounters per year.
These are big denominators, yielding infinitesimally small fractions of tragedy. Over 50 million police encounters, less than 100 unarmed people killed. It is statistically impossible to root out every single incident of misconduct in a group that large.
But even within these small numbers, are blacks disproportionately targeted? It is true that the number of blacks killed by police is consistently disproportionate to their share of the U.S. population. Over the three year period from 2017 through 2019, blacks represented 27 percent of all people shot to death by police, yet they comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population. On the surface, this looks pretty bad. But there is a lot more to this story.
When considering any case of disproportion, you have to examine the underlying facts. In an unvarnished analysis recently published in the Wall Street Journal, Manhattan Institute fellow and author Heather Mac Donald presents some inconvenient facts: Blacks are indeed twice as likely to be fatally shot by police than whites, but, “in 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published, African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the U.S. and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 13% of the population.”
These facts are well-known, but they’re ignored. When crime rates are taken into account, it turns out that blacks are not disproportionately killed by police and, in fact, the opposite is true. In a recent study that even NPR reporters acknowledged was peer-reviewed and published by the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers concluded: “We find no evidence, at the national level, that officers show racial bias against Blacks in the decision to use deadly force,” and “we found no evidence that the race of a police officer related to the race of a citizen shot.”
Who Are the Victims of Scope Insensitivity?
When activists, corporate marketing departments, biased and innumerate journalists, and opportunistic politicians take advantage of scope insensitivity to enact flawed policies, the primary victims are the people they claim they’re trying to help. It doesn’t help members of the black community to defund the police, it just causes black-on-black crime to increase. It doesn’t help low-income communities in America to compete for jobs with immigrants, nor does it help poverty stricken nations to rise up, when that small fraction of their population that emigrates includes a high proportion of their most enterprising and ambitious citizens. And nobody of modest means is helped, anywhere on earth, when the cost of energy and other vital resources is artificially inflated.
And when scope insensitivity is endemic and unchallenged, who wins? In America the winners are its ruling class: billionaires, multinational corporations, and their enablers, advocates and facilitators—tenured professors, attorneys and other professionals, powerful nonprofit pressure groups, and the unionized public sector which is immune from most of its effects. Overregulated and expensive energy, water, land, and other basic resources empowers the monopolies that own and distribute them. Cheap private sector labor benefits corporations and wealthy people. And a nation riven by deliberately fomented racial tension is less likely to question policies that are robbing them of their prosperity, freedom, and national sovereignty.
The corporate elite are betting that democratic socialism will still allow for rich people and huge corporations. It is a perilous bet, but to hedge their bets, they are aggressively selling a “reset” in the name of environmental protection, social justice, and protection from disease. This “reset” is the most hideous expression of tyranny in American history, and it is to be enforced with a technology-driven police state that is intended to handle even the most determined populist uprising.
Scope insensitivity is a big part of the reason Americans may see their nation complete its downwards drift towards becoming a socialist police state controlled by mega corporations, enforcing rationing instead of competition, artificial scarcity instead of abundance, and solidifying the nation into two very different classes: the super rich with the unionized government elite and their partners, and everyone else. This is the vision that dominates every deep blue state and deep blue city in America, justified in the name of establishing “equity” among the races and saving the planet.