Man Without Qualities


Saturday, June 03, 2006


The Gas Man, Again

When pondering Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" it is perhaps worth remembering that this is not the first time the former vice president has waged a campaign to impose gigantic costs in the service of correcting a problem of dubious reality (that in fact turned out not to exist nearly to the extent he insisted) and was not substantially ameliorated by anything he proposed.

The reader will recall that Mr. Gore headed the Clinton administration's campaign against the "Y2K Bug," sometimes known as the "millennium bug." There are striking parallels between Mr. Gore's two crusades. As with potential major human-caused global warming, the larger number of Y2K Bug "experts" were predicting that the bug was a huge problem that would have cataclysmic consequences if not aggressively and expensively corrected. Indeed, in 1999 The National Journal reported:

[A] survey of industry and government executives and programmers concerning potential fallout from the millennium bug, showing that 70 percent anticipated a negative effect on the economy, with 10 percent of respondents not ruling out the possibility of economic depression and civil insurrection.
Things didn't quite turn out that way on January 1, 2000. Not even countries (including Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, Romania and other countries of the old Soviet bloc, Brazil and South Africa) that had made few efforts to ward off the Y2K Bug suffered more than a few glitches:


[T]he Y2K bug had threatened to set off an epidemic of computer failures affecting everything from lights and water to aviation and nuclear power as the machines failed to recognize the new millennial date.

But as the headline in the Singapore Straits Times reported, "It was all bug and no bite." Governments all over the globe have reported few glitches and no disasters caused by computers meeting up with the year 2000. ….

Romania ... reported even fewer incidents than usual in the country's ill-equipped computer industry. ….Brazil's financial markets, the biggest in Latin America, passed Y2K tests with flying colors … In the meantime, planes are flying, toilets are flushing, phones are ringing and lights are shining.

The Y2K bug did not cripple a single power plant. Even the nuclear generators in the former Soviet Union kept running hours into the new year. …. Key oil production facilities were also unaffected, and there were no reports of widespread gasoline or food hoarding ....

"Throughout the world I think you'll find that almost a trillion dollars was spent on Y2K work. ... No one has argued credibly that the Y2K bug -- the legacy of programming in which years were expressed with just two digits -- was a scam .... "I was monitoring some radio stations yesterday. People were calling in and saying, `I didn't do anything to my computer, and it's working,' " said Faizel Dawjee, a South African government spokesman.
The Y2K Bug was not a "scam" - and the possibility of serious adverse consequences of global warming is not a "scam." There were some glitches: A few satellites went out, Al Gore had problems on his campaign web site computer because it wasn't DeBugged properly, that kind of thing. But the world of economic decisions does not consist of binary decisions between "scams" and the need to spend trillions of dollars! Was it worth spending a Trillion Dollars to ward off the Y2K Bug - even though countries that did not make systematic efforts suffered few consequences, and no serious consequences at all? I very much doubt it. It is not hard to think of very good uses of One Trillion Dollars, far better uses than remorsely chasing a software bug that did little damage even where nothing was done to fix it. Of course, a Trillion Dollars would be a small down payment (peanuts, really) in comparision with the costs that An Inconvenient Truth implicitly or explicitily demands be born by the world's economy ... much of it by the world's poorest people.

And the costs of the excessive Y2K DeBugging programs spearheaded by Mr. Gore were by no means limited to excessive spending on corrections. Y2K DeBugging expenditures during the Clinton-Gore administration were probably a major cause of the internet bubble of the late Clintonian Era:

To see what other veteran investors thought about the lessons learned -- or unlearned -- from the [1990's internet] bubble bursting, I checked with Ray Rothrock, managing partner of Venrock Associates. ... Venrock, founded with money from the Rockefeller family fortune, has been evaluating young tech companies for three decades from its offices on Sand Hill Road. Its past investments have included tech titans such as Apple Computer (AAPL) and Intel Corp. (INTC).

Rothrock believes that the bubble "was a perfect storm on two fronts -- Y2K and the Internet." Corporate zealousness to prepare for a Y2K disaster "inflated IT budgets well beyond normal growth rates," Rothrock said.

The graph of U.S. corporate IT spending growth from 1960 to 2005 shows a pretty steady line, except for a spike in advance of Y2K, Rothrock explained.

That caused investors to overestimate future tech spending and see "an infinite demand for tech products" that was an illusion, Rothrock said.

There is something about Mr. Gore's speech patterns, intonations, body movements and thought processes that suggests, even insists, that he is actually a character from some old Firesign Theater album. One such album, Everything You Know Is Wrong, posited the arrival of conquering Gas Men of Jupiter, who employed reasoning and intonation strikingly similar to those of Al Gore in An Inconvenient_Truth. Humanlings and earthloids were apprised by the gassy invaders that for too long we had been the "cruel masters" of our planet, and therefore (in logic strikingly similar to that undergirding the Kyoto Accord) now everyone must learn to play the piano! In many ways An Inconvenient Truth is in spirit a retelling of the Firesign classic, sometimes veering uncomfortably close to what might be termed spiritual plagiarism. But when contemplating the similarities between the thought processes of Mr. Gore and those of the alien invaders posited by the stoned-out Firesign zanies, this is not the most important point! As the former vice president wages his campaign to impose gigantic costs on mankind in the service of correcting a problem that may not exist and (if it does exist) would almost certainly not be substantially ameliorated by anything now proposed by him, it is more interesting to remember that this is not the first time he's done that kind of thing. And it is also worth remembering that Mr. Gore had lots of opportunistic Republicans and putative conservatives egging him on in his Y2K excesses.

Al Gore appears to be a seeker of ersatz political myths posing as quasi-religious truths, and he's always looking for others of like mindset. That mindset was a product of the benighted 1970's, which also produced the Firesign Theater classic now emulated in spirit so faithfully by the former vice president's new movie. As that classic points out: There's a seeker born every minute!

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