The Social Media Value of Idiot Columnists

It used to astound me how many idiots (morons, blockheads, nitwits, pinheads, etc.) still write for major media outlets.

John Tierney, columnist for the New York Times, is a case in point. It’s really too bad I’m far from the only one who thinks this.

Looks smarter than he is

Looks smarter than he is

And occasionally Daniel Hamermesh writes inane things on the Freakonomics blog (such as classic about the environmental dangers of exercise bicycles, or his piteous bemoaning of the hardships of tenured faculty in a depression)  … though he was right about raising taxes recently.

But today I was reading the Toronto Star, which had this headline: “This mother to try potty training at 3 months.” First person by a mom to be … one of the paper’s  living reporters, who is

planning to start practising elimination communication: a method that teaches parents how to read their wee one’s signals so the infant can go in a potty (with assistance, of course) rather than a diaper.

I found myself laughing (communication? they can barely even roll over at 3 months!) and then skimming … and then skipping straight to the comments, which included these:

  • Good luck with that, I wonder if you’ll post if you fail?
  • I think pulling the “better for the envrironment” platitude is disingenous. We want kids to be kids but not if it inconveniences us.Then we’ll accelerate them. I’ve never seen a 10 year old who cannot go to the bathroom by himself/herself. Let nature take its course.
  • This article is hilarious…how can anyone take toilet-training at 3 months seriously? Next they will want to have babies dressing themselves by 6 months, or taking their own baths at 1 year! C’mon people, let babies be babies!!! If you’re worried about the environment, use cotton diapers like we do!

So now I’m entertaining a pet theory that either the Toronto Star and the New York Times have a bunch of nitwits on staff and has to fill up the space with something, or …

This is the dawning of a new era of clever journalism, where the journalist “plays the fool” (for Tierney I fear it isn’t an act), and their ludicrous rantings are really just a placeholder, and the real action is taking place in the comments section.

I’m really hoping it’s the latter.

The next John Tierney

The next John Tierney

The Consequences of Being Green

That’s the title of a guest post on the Freakonomics blog by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas.

The Freakonomics blog is usually interesting, quirky, thought-provoking … all that good stuff. Unfortunately, Hamermesh’s post is poorly thought out and poorly argued exception. Here’s most of it:

The actor Ed Begley Jr. has a widely-circulated OpEd piece touting his eco-friendly activities, featuring a proud announcement that his exercise on his stationary bicycle generates the electricity he uses to toast two pieces of bread.

Now those two pieces give him 200 calories, but he burns at least 100 calories on the bike. So half of his eco-friendly exercise is lost because he needs to obtain additional food from elsewhere to maintain his weight — food whose growth and distribution have environmental consequences too, as does the manufacture of his bicycle.

This illustrates the general equilibrium difficulties of so many pro-environmental activities about which the rich and famous boast.

There should be a rule: before helping the environment in one market, we should be required to think through the impacts on other markets.

Hamermesh is attempting to pick on the extra food Begley needs if he exercises, and the environmental consequences of the manufacture of his exercise bike.

Here’s why that’s a bad idea:

1) Begley is going to exercise anyway. Only a fool would argue that we shouldn’t exercise because it has “environmental consequences.” Thus, the extra bread is a non-issue. And from my admitted environmental perspective, bread isn’t a bad thing to eat, compared to, say, the carbon footprint of hamburgers. Or for that matter, how many volatile organic compounds are emitted to cook them at a fast-food restaurant.

2) The environmental consequences of the manufacture of his exercise bike? Is he smoking crack? By hooking up his exerbike to make toast, he’s taking something used for one purpose (exercise) and making it twice as efficient (exercise + electricity generation).

3) If you’re going to count the environmental costs of manufacturing a bike, let’s note that you can make 100 bikes with the same amount of energy needed to make just one car. Also, if you’re going to count the bike’s “costs” as an energy-generation tool, it’s only fair to compare it to the way that energy currently is generated: think of all the energy and emissions resulting from the mining, transport and burning of coal … and then transmitting it through the nation’s power grid, where 66% of the energy is lost! (Speaking of poorly thought out, there’s a perfect example, non?)

4) Hamermesh: “There should be a rule: before helping the environment in one market, we should be required to think through the impacts on other markets.”

Before helping the environment, we should think through a decision’s market impacts? The environment has always been an economic externality, the part not factored into the equation while CEOs, presidents and economists have been unthinking slaves to Economic Growth. And now we’re seeing that come back to haunt us. So Mr. Hamermesh is flat-out wrong here. Putting the market first is what got us into this mess; we can hardly expect that same thinking to get us out of it.

Yes, we should think through the environmental consequences, and the economic ones. But we should do so by first taking economics and markets out of its privileged place at the top of the decision-making pecking order. Think of it this way:

“Market change” doesn’t threaten the lives of billions of beings on the earth. But that’s exactly what climate change does.