Monday, April 14, 2008

Malthus, Grant Me ...

Some of you may be familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It's often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and related twelve-step programs, but according to an Atlantic Monthly article by Paul Elie, it was written by Reinhold Niebuhr in response to the escalation of the Cold War. It's such a succinct expression of a general insight about life that it's useful even if you're not an alcoholic or a politician, or a Christian, or even a theist. It goes like this:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

So here's my Supplement to the serenity prayer:

And God, protect us from those who lie about what they can and can't change, and give us the insight to see through their lies.

Have you ever been talking to an annoying customer service agent or bureaucrat and gotten this, "The computer won't let me do that," or "The computer needs me to put this information in"? Computers are tools. They do what we tell them to do. They go down, and any organization with any sense has a plan to make do without computers for a day or two. If the computer won't let our Customer Service Agent refund our money for an obvious mistake, it's because the Customer Service Agent's boss won't let him do that.

Have you ever been told that something is impossible, but you have the sneaking feeling that it's not actually impossible? That the real reason you can't do it is because the person telling you it's impossible doesn't want you to do it? But it's just a feeling; you don't know for sure whether they're telling you the truth. Or even whether they're telling themselves the truth. That's what the Insight Supplement is useful for.

I hate to say it, but sometimes I get that sneaking feeling when people are making population projections. I support congestion pricing, but not because "OMG! NYC will have a million more ppl in 2030!" but because it would be good for the nineteen million people we already have.

Fortunately, many environmentalists now understand the principle of induced demand as applied to roads, but unfortunately, many of them don't apply the same principle to population in general. We don't have complete control over population, but that doesn't mean we have to accommodate any population trends that have been observed without question.

The answer is not just to assume that the million people will come no matter what, but to question why they're coming, whether they'll still come in an economic downturn, whether there's any way to redirect at least some of them to other places that can accommodate them better, and whether there's any way to get those of them who do show up to settle in a sustainable way.

I'll be referring back to this in specific cases where population projections are used to justify bad planning.

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