The Alternative to Crony Capitalism and Phony Shortages
The modern history of the Silicon Valley arguably began in 1957, when eight young PhD graduates left Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories to launch the first high-volume chip manufacturer, Fairchild Semiconductor. Fairchild and its spinoffs, including Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), were the early participants in what became the most fervid ecosystem of fiercely competitive innovators the world has ever seen. Inspired by the mantra “better, faster, cheaper,” and fueled by billions in venture capital, the Silicon Valley is now the epicenter of the information age that has transformed our lives.
With power, however, comes corruption. The Silicon Valley’s inspirational mantra has become challenged in recent years. High-tech products that used to sell because they were better are now sold because they are mandated by law. They sell not because they are faster, but because they are engineered to operate according to a social or environmentalist agenda. And they are most definitely not cheaper, but instead cost far more than they should. And across the product spectrum from high-tech to low-tech, Silicon Valley leadership increasingly uses their political clout to support this new agenda.
This is no longer competitive innovation. It is crony capitalism. Here are examples of these mandated products:
- Light switches that don’t simply turn on (up) or off (down), but instead require prolonged pressing in exactly the right spots – not intuitive at all – and turn off again after a brief interval in order to save energy.
- “Low flow” faucets that have 1/4″ feed pipes instead of 3/8″, which double the time required to fill a pot. Forever.
- Public restroom faucets that require absurd – and often futile – hand waving in order to turn on. Then when they’re activated, they squirt tiny jets of water that bounce off the skin. Then they turn off almost immediately, requiring additional hand waving.
- “Low flow” shower heads, also with reduced diameter feed pipes, which double the time required to rinse shampoo out of long hair.
- Side loading washers that damage fabric and condemn users to bending ninety degrees every time they want to load or unload them.
- “Low flow” toilets that require multiple flushes and often don’t send enough water into the sewers, requiring investment in additional pumping systems.
- Public toilets that have an intelligent sensor that controls when to flush the excrement left by the previous user, but frequently fails to do so.
- LED streetlights that turn night into glaring day and impart the ambiance of a prison compound to what once were peaceful suburban neighborhoods.
- “Drought tolerant” landscaping – requiring expensive “smart” drip irrigation systems – that is ugly and robs families of a lawn where their children can play.
- Reusable grocery bags that are expensive magnets for bacteria, require frequent, time-consuming and largely ineffective cleaning, and are thrown away at a frequency that actually makes them create more total waste than the lower-mass disposables.
- “Smart” thermostats that have complicated programs and settings that nobody uses, when a $20 unit with a bimetallic strip used to be perfectly sufficient to activate cooling or heating whenever a hot or cold temperature threshold was reached.
And we haven’t seen anything yet! The “internet of things” is coming. And when it does, nanny robots will abet the nanny state, ensuring the green corporate vision of utopia monitors and manages us all.
The problem with all of these socially engineered, mandated products, apart from the fact they are, collectively, massive annoyances, is that they are based on convenient myths. The idea, for example, that anyone can overuse indoor water is a myth. Instead of using water bond proceeds to give rebates to consumers to buy these contrivances, policymakers should be completing infrastructure upgrades so that 100% of sewage is treated and injected into aquifers to be retrieved again as potable water. How can you overuse indoor water if 100% of it is recycled?
The idea that urban water cutbacks in general can have a significant impact on California’s total water diversions is another convenient myth. During this recent drought, California’s households were asked to cut back their water consumption by 25%. Best case, this would have given back about 900,000 acre feet for farmers or environmental uses. But according to the California Dept. of Water Resources, farmers currently consume 27 million acre feet each year, and environmental diversions consume another 31 million acre feet per year. All of that household saving equates to a reduction in total use of only 1.5%. Meanwhile, public funds are spent urging people to put a brick in their toilet tank, or a bucket in their shower. This is infantile propaganda, imparting dangerous levels of scope insensitivity to the impressionable.
When you examine the alternatives to forcing citizens to buy expensive, annoying gadgets to address a phony shortage, it becomes quite clear what’s going on. Crony capitalist lobbyists, who want their high-tech companies to be OEMs to major manufacturers of durable goods, are warping policy decisions so they can pocket the public money that ought to be used to upgrade our sewage treatment plants, construct reservoirs (Temperance Flat and Sites come to mind), and build percolation systems to harvest storm runoff from the Los Angeles river and other rivers.
The same holds true for energy. There’s nothing wrong with mandating common sense solutions to avoid profligate waste of water and energy. But it is oppressive to mandate sealing up homes and buildings so fresh air can’t circulate, subjecting people to the blinding industrial glare of first generation LED light, or making them install switches and thermostats that are puzzles to operate. Back in the 1990’s, reputable environmentalist magazines like WorldWatch promoted natural gas as the “transition” fuel to adopt while we moved methodically towards the electric age. Now that we’re awash in natural gas, the environmentalists, abetted by the crony capitalists, have raised the stakes.
For those of us in the developed world, these policy biases translate into annoyances. For those billions who reside in the developing world, the oppressive consequences are tragic. The preconditions for population stabilization are universal literacy, reduced infant mortality, and female emancipation. And the biggest single precondition for those three laudable goals? Prosperity enabled by cheap and abundant energy. But while we fiddle with battery technologies and smart electrical grids, inexpensive clean fossil fuel investment in the developing world is scuttled.
Here is the moral choice that the phony shortage crony capitalist crowd doesn’t want you to hear: We can develop clean fossil fuel to quickly create global prosperity, and world population will peak at 8.0 billion. Or we can develop “green” energy with windmills, batteries, and solar farms, deferring global prosperity due to the incredible cost of these bleeding edge technologies, and world population will peak at 10.0 billion. What is the impact of another two billion people on the ecological carrying capacity of planet earth? Al Gore and Tom Steyer are invited to answer this question.
Back here in California, the choice is equally clear. We can pretend there are shortages of water, energy and land, which will enrich the crony capitalists, but make the rest of us poorer. Or we can develop our natural gas and invest in our water supply and storage infrastructure, which will encourage the Silicon Valley to reaffirm their inspiring legacy of competitive innovation, while providing tremendous opportunities for the rest of us.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
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