Concerning feasibility

“Zero energy consumption” as a national goal is a physical impossibility.
“Zero energy imports” as a national goal is an economic, political, and administrative impossibility.
Social constraints are no less real than physical constraints.
Promising the impossible is a form of lying.

Obviously, when Mike Huckabee said that “we ought to declare that we will be free of energy consumption in this country within a decade,” he meant “imports” rather than “consumption.”

But does that make his comment any less absurd? While “zero energy imports” isn’t physically impossible the way “zero energy consumption” is, it’s equally impossible economically, politically, and administratively. Those constraints aren’t any less real for not involving the laws of thermodynamics.

Huckabee’s ten-year deadline reminds me of Nixon’s commitment to “make the United States energy-independent within ten years.” My old Kennedy School colleague Bill Hogan tells of his service on the Energy Indepenence Task Force charged with making good on that promise. “The first thing we had to do was re-define ‘energy independence.’ The second thing we had to do was re-define ‘ten years.’ “

In some ways would be even worse to have a President who doesn’t distinguish between feasible and infeasible solutions to public problems than it would be to have a President who doesn’t understand physics. A politician is much less likely to imagine that he knows physics when he doesn’t, or to imagine that physical law will yield to the exercise of political will, than to make the same errors about economics.

A promise to do something impossible amounts to a lie. But the fundamental dishonesty of such “visionary” proposals seems not to count as a “character issue” in contemporary political journalism. It would be nice to have a political press corps that understood, and cared about, the difference between a (feasible) bold initiative and an (infeasible) hare-brained scheme, but that, too, seems to be outside the feasible set.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: