Party of waste

What moral/religious/ethical principle can the broadest possible spectrum of a diverse nation agree on? It might seem to be the fifth commandment, but it isn’t. That one is on something of a roll – even Texans are losing their traditional enthusiasm for having the state kill people, and murders are  on a twenty year slide – but we have a military, we allow some killers to plead self-defense,  and police carry deadly weapons with broad consent.

I propose that it’s an eleventh commandment, Thou shalt not waste. There’s lots of waste around, but who puts forth a moral justification for whacking the fin off a shark and throwing the rest of it back in the ocean to die? Who expects to be admired for leaving windows open in the winter, or throwing away food?  Tiny symbolic sacrifices figure in some religions, but I can’t think of any faith or tradition that doesn’t broadly condemn waste as foolishness, a character flaw, or a sin.  I myself take the last view, not in a pietistic or obsessive-compulsive way (I don’t print on the back of used paper, nor drive the smallest possible car the least I can).  I have too much stuff and my house is too big, but I try to keep on top of it and most important, I’m not proud of, say, the computer gadgets I don’t use and haven’t recycled yet.  My personal hostility to waste distinguishes clearly between waste and use: I think that we are obligated to do what we reasonably can to assure that everything that gets used up creates the most possible value. Much more important, I claim that this rule is very broadly accepted as a moral, not just an economic, principle. It is, in particular, a conservative principle; it’s not an accident that before the formal organization called “The Republican Party” went insane with fear and hate, it was quite hostile to waste of all kinds.

I condemn the US Republican party of the present era for a variety of sins, but today I wish to highlight its radiant, smug, knowing wastefulness. I know you can find examples of waste in other countries, and among Democrats, Independents, anarchists,…, and there’s a lot of waste that flows from ignorance, but no-one else has made it such a central, conscious, operating principle.

Let us count the ways: Obviously, intending to waste the capacity of the planet to support life, from the littoral zones that are due to go under water to the productive capacity of farmland ruined by droughts and floods, has to be high on the list.  What’s the net value created by letting James Inhofe lead the band on energy policy, and who gets to enjoy it, for how long? Climate aside, millions of years of solar energy collection by long-dead plants stored up a nice pool of very useful liquid fuel.  Who wants to drain America’s first, and burn up the world’s supply as fast as possible?  Republicans, the party of waste. Sure, they have intimidated Democrats into going along with this nonsense, and bad on the Obama administration for its mostly feckless energy program, but the false prophet/destructive bully is more to be condemned than the adherents and victims.

What’s right up with the natural environment and the resources it provides us as a central, dominating source of value?  We are, of course, and the unit of measure is person-days.  Every day a human being can’t do the work he is fit for, and wants to do, because the necessary infrastructure is broken or missing, or the economy is broken and can’t manifest the demand that would put him to work, is gone forever. Sure, leisure time creates net value even if it isn’t priced; it’s not wasteful to intentionally take a vacation, or pass up overtime to take the kids to the beach, or even to live on a trust fund if you have one and want to. But sitting home sending out endless resumés for months, and spending weeks and months on a bench at the unemployment office, are waste. They waste the idle days, and they waste  future capacity, because long-term unemployment makes long-term damage.  Our Republicans deplore unemployment and prate about making jobs, but they don’t mean it, and I know they don’t mean it because for four years they have done everything they could to sabotage everything that might ameliorate this particularly inhumane, abusive, tragic waste.  Period. The idea that giving rich people more money (tax cuts)  makes jobs has been disproved in theory and by experiment.  Giving rich people more money makes them richer; government spending in recessionary times puts people to work, end of story.

A lot of the unemployed wasting their days in work that doesn’t use their skills, or not working at all, are hardhats, also engineers and architects. Everything we make degrades with time, weather, and use, and roads, buildings, levees, parks, light rail lines, and all the rest of the built environment is complementary to everyone creating value.  We can fix that stuff cheaply if we catch it in time, and build more (which we desperately need if only because there are more of us) or we can let it rust away.  Conservatives want to conserve capital; Republicans (now) want to waste it along with the days of the people who could maintain and expand it.

When someone has a job, those working days can create more or less value depending on many complements they have.  Technology is good for this, but the most important one is education: less education, less value created every person-day.  Republicans don’t like education, and act it out by trying to spend less on it, at every level of government.  They also like to sabotage minds by affirmatively infiltrating schools with ignorance and superstition, so the remaining days in school are wasted teaching what is not true. Democrats are not trying to turn science courses into religious indoctrination; Republicans are.  Democrats are not about firing teachers and shortening school days, Republicans are.  They have become the party of collapsing the knowledge of future citizens and workers into nothing more than what Mom and Dad  (or maybe Grandma and Grandpa) knew, including stuff they knew that was wrong.

Environmental waste, capital waste, human waste.  Your Republican Party, distinctively and proudly so – and crosswise to the moral teaching of every faith and creed.



Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Party of waste”

  1. Thank you for stating the obvious so well. This forest of irony has been lost in the trees of policy debate as the conversation has drifted so far off the map of rationality that the GOP has at last decided to abandon truth and facts all togeather. Ignoring the meaning of words like “conservative” is inextricably wound up in ignoring facts and truth.
    Harold Pollack’s post (right next door) points to the hope that just maybe the GOP have jumped the shark on this stuff and the debate can be dragged back to some level of sanity. Let us pray.

  2. We should retire the term “conservative” as a description of the GOP (and its friend sin the British Tory party) until such time as they return recognizably to the tradition of Burke, Disraeli, Oakeshott and Eisenhower. Perhaps we can call them Whites, like Kolchak and Denikin.

    1. How about calling them the party of Conspicuous Conslumption? They are, after all, a combination of a con and a slump in our happy age.

  3. Mike, while I have no quarrel with your list of abuses inflicted on us by non-conservative “conservatives,” it can’t literally be true that “we are obligated to do what we reasonably can to assure that everything that gets used up creates the most possible value” is either a moral or an economic principle—unless one defines “reasonably” tendentiously. Like most things, conservation faces diminishing marginal returns; at some point it costs more than it’s worth. (Your revealed preferences confirm this in that you don’t print on the back side of used paper—which I do, actually.) One should not, though many of us do, fetishize non-wastefulness by spending more energy on non-waste (e.g. recycling certain plastics) than new consumption would cost, or by harming one’s health by cleaning one’s plate rather than discarding some of a portion that’s more than one is hungry for. To quote Kim Stanley Robinson, “nothing in excess: including moderation.”

    Again, there is no sign that contemporary Republicans have anything like this calculus in mind. “Drill, Baby, Drill” is the slogan of a party that actively revels in waste provided the costs are (emphatically!) not internalized. But like James, I’m holding out for the return of a responsible, wet Tory party that would appreciate recycling and macroeconomic policy but would start costing them out at the margin—as progressives, in my experience (I used to live in Santa Monica), have often been loath to do.

    1. Andy, your first paragraph is what I was trying to pack into “reasonably” in order not to write it all out as you did.

  4. Some friends of our live in Bachman’s district. When they moved, there was a meet-the-neighbors party, and one couple commented, “Politcially, we’re pretty conservative. We don’t recycle.”

  5. The booming waste sector is in imprisonment, the gigantic industrial sector devoted to the intentional destruction of human potential, with its “factories” dotting the landscape in staggering excess. It’s probably the most profitable waste sector going, with a nice, tightly integrated feedback loop of weakened urban electorates unable to fend off the prison gerrymandering, where rural lawmakers get increased power by raiding urban areas for bodies to warehouse, which then shifts the census maps in favor of the rural lawmakers, who ramp up the draconian laws even further, and away we go.

    A clever statistician could probably make a good graphic showing how the rise of this sector maps closely our diminished economic fortunes.

  6. Both parties are on the train for converting corn into vehicle fuel, and starving the poor. Dems are the big backers of Davis-Bacon, and of work rules in general. Neither party seems to have the daring to touch the mortgage tax exemption, with its incentives to wildly overbuild houses for the rich and minimal assistance to the poor. It’s a shame they can’t both lose.

  7. I’m going to sound a contrary position which sounds like it is too clever by far, but which I really mean: the use of the term “waste” is profoundly destructive to REAL ecology.

    The point is: “Waste” is not some value-free word, waste is RELATIVE. If I leave my tap running, that is called waste — but when I see a river flowing by, that is NOT called waste.
    Waste represents a world view which puts man and economics frontmost — “waste” is waste relative to what’s good for man, and what’s good for increasing dollars.

    A worldview obsessed by waste (as is our current one) is NOT a worldview asking “how many people can the planet support, along with all the other animals and plants, while allowing us to live like kings; and how do we get there?”; rather it is a worldview asking “how can we all suffer a little bit more so that the next billion can eek out a miserable life, so that they can give give birth to the next billion after that?”

    I expect a whole lot of mocking of this, of course. All I ask, from the more thoughtful 10% of you, is that you THINK about my point. Words don’t live in a vacuum; they shape thoughts and values. And this particular word really DOES shape a certain set of attitudes which, since they are ultimately incoherent, degenerate into magical thinking and pseudo-religious behavior.
    As an alternative, a focus on the word LIMITS as opposed to WASTE would, IMHO, result in a rather different culture.

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