Wasted Outrage by David Montgomery


One topic that has in recent months received far more attention than it deserves is 3D printing of plastic guns.  They are pretty much worthless, so that both the libertarian posturing of their makers and the frightened howls of the hoplophobes are plain silly.  

Throw into the mix the fact that a settlement was reached under the Trump administration allowing publication of computer code for programming a 3D printer to make an all-plastic gun, and the pot boils over.  Not only are reporters and editorialists having hysterics, but judges all over and the Attorney General of Maryland are wasting their time and our money fighting this settlement.

Here is the issue.  The Obama State Department warned a blogger that if he published instructions for using a 3D printer to make a plastic gun he would be in violation of one of its alphabet soup regulations – the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.  That was the first bit of silliness – using regulations intended to prevent publication of designs for advanced weapon systems to stop someone from posting computer code that could have been written by anyone with a course or two in 3D printing at a community college and a working knowledge of real firearms.  That raised legitimate fears that the State Department would classify such common activities as posting a copy of the manual for use and maintenance of a firearm to be a violation of ITAR.

The blogger – who has been described as a libertarian activist – sued the State Department for violating his First Amendment rights. In June the State Department agreed to a settlement that would have allowed him to publish the computer code on August 1.  While all this was happening, a plan developed in the Obama Administration to move export controls on commercially available small arms from State to Commerce was being implemented. And Commerce has made it clear that once something has been been published on the internet, it is no longer subject to export controls.  All in all, a sensible approach which would remove any restrictions on publishing instructions on 3D printing of plastic guns.

On the First and Second Amendment side, this plan makes the issue of prior restraint on dissemination of information about 3D printing of firearms moot.  In fact, even before the August 1 deadline, instructions similar to those that the State Department had tried to stop reportedly appeared on other websites. There was nothing left for either side to fight about.  The Bill of Rights was protected, and the cat was out of the bag in any event.

But that is not how the media and the anti-gun lobby see it.  Since the settlement with the State Department happened in the Trump Administration, it became another cause célèbre for Trump-bashing.

The fear mongers moved immediately to hyperbole and accusations:

Senator Markey of Massachusetts: “Donald Trump will be totally responsible for every downloadable, plastic AR-15 (gun) that will be roaming the streets of our country if he does not act today,”

Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut: “blood is going to be on his [Trump’s] hands.”

As usual, a Federal judge from the West Coast listened to all this and decided that President was again doing “irreparable harm” and issued an injunction to stop the publication of the 3D instructions.

Ironically, the “downloadable gun” that is causing all the fuss is at best a curiosity, a waste of money to make, and far more dangerous to the shooter than anyone it might be pointed at.  The plastics used by home-style 3D printers are far from strong enough to contain the energy of even a wimpy cartridge. A 3D printed all-plastic gun is no more dangerous than a large firework, which is what experts expect most of them to become sooner or later.  A successful product might last for a shot or two, but most are likely to explode in the hands of the idiot who decided to build one.

If the result works and really is “undetectable,” the maker is already in trouble.  The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 made it illegal to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer or receive” any firearm that cannot be detected in a TSA scan.  As a result, the design at issue included a firing pin and enough other metal to trigger a metal detector.

Even a tinkerer who wants to make his own off-the-books firearm has a less expensive way to make a superior product.  It is perfectly legal to purchase an unfinished frame for a pistol or even an AR-type rifle because the ATF does not consider it to be a “firearm” until some additional holes and hollows are drilled so that the parts that make it shoot can be installed.  The “80% complete receivers” as they are called are widely available online for under $100, as are the jigs and instructions needed to place the holes and hollows accurately. For the rest a few drills and end mills, a drill press or even a hand drill do the job.

Besides, why would any bad guy go to the trouble and expense to roll his own when far superior stolen guns are bought and sold on the streets of Washington and Baltimore every day?

So the NRA and President Trump (and I) agree with the ban on undetectable guns.  Nobody in his right mind who intends to use a firearm for any of its legal or illegal purposes wants or needs an all-plastic gun.  Even a nut bent on mass murder would discover that a single-shot self-destroying firearm is not very useful.

On top of that, keeping plans for 3D guns off the Internet is literally closing the barn door too late.  The offending bit of computer code is far from the secret of the atomic bomb. Not only are there cheaper ways to obtain a more effective weapon, the code itself is hardly a mystery or scientific breakthrough.  The necessary components of a firearm are few and well known and courses in programming 3D printers are widely available. The result may or may not work, but the opportunity is there for anyone who wishes to tinker innocently or to waste time and money.

I found this topic worth writing about for three reasons.  It is about guns, which is a good enough reason for me all by itself.  Even better, the out of sight reactions are good for a few laughs. But there is a serious point, about how easily people are now gulled into hysteria and outrage when the target is made out to be our President.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Another Victory for Regulatory Reform: Fuel Economy Standards by David Montgomery


On August 2, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) announced revised fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks to be applied in model years 2021 – 2026. The revised standards would replace standards set by the same two agencies in 2012, well before the revolution in oil drilling technology that has moved the U.S. to the top of the list of oil producing countries and caused gasoline prices to fall dramatically.  

The law that authorized setting the 2012 standards also provided for a mid-term review, so that changes that might occur in the eight years between the publication and effective dates of the original rules could be taken into account.  The result of the review, announced on August 2, is that standards will be frozen at 2020 levels through 2025.

To clear up a potential misunderstanding, DOT sets fuel economy standards and EPA sets greenhouse gas emission standards.  But since the two are in practice two ways of measuring exactly the same thing, the two agencies have agreed to harmonize and publish their regulations in a single rule-making.

The proposed standards are good news for car buyers, U.S. industry and the economy.  They are good news for new car buyers because they will slow the rate of increase in new car prices and allow buyers greater freedom to choose among gasoline consumption, performance and amenities.  

They will also make new cars safer.

The proposed standards are good for U.S. industry because they will avoid the shrinkage of new car sales that these adverse consumer impacts would cause.  

They are good for the economy because on balance the reduction in traffic fatalities, moderation of regulatory distortions to consumer and manufacturer decisions, and lower new car costs more than offset higher gasoline expenditures and modest increases in emissions.

All these points are made and supported logically and quantitatively by an exceptional Preliminary Regulatory Impact Analysis (PRIA) that was released at the same time as the new standards.   It incorporates sound reasoning, transparent assumptions and sophisticated economic analysis. It addresses issues such as unintentional consequences and hidden costs that were glossed over in prior rule-makings, and it corrects arbitrary and indefensible decisions such as those affecting the value assigned to greenhouse gas reductions.

The fuel economy standards set by the Obama Administration have been particularly contentious, though the flaws in the entire regulatory system have been pointed out (by me among others) from its very inception.

There is strong evidence that federal standards did little or nothing to increase overall fuel economy once oil prices increased rapidly from the late 1970s onward.  These oil price increases made it in the interest of consumers to choose at least as much fuel economy improvement as the standards dictated.

That is not to say that prior fuel economy standards did not distort the market or impose costs.  The original law mandating the standards created several arbitrary classes of vehicles with different standards: imported versus domestic, passenger car vs light truck, and light vs medium truck being the most important.  This led to a seismic change in the automobile market when sport utility vehicles and mini-vans classified as trucks but functioning as passenger cars were introduced to take advantage of the less-stringent standard for trucks.  In addition, the original rules did not allow manufacturers to trade allowances, so that competitive impacts were exaggerated and total costs to buyers increased.

Passage of the dreadful Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and President Bush’s even more unfortunate opening of the door to EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions set up the opportunity for the Obama Administration to impose standards for fuel economy substantially different from market demand.  Binding standards also create a number of distortions in consumer behavior: switching to smaller and lighter weight vehicles that increase accident severity, increasing smog-producing emissions by driving more because fuel cost per mile is lower, and keeping older gas guzzlers on the road because of increases in new car prices.

It is very gratifying to see that EPA and DOT have recognized all these issues, and have attempted to work within the imperfect regulatory framework dictated by Congress to minimize regulatory distortions and maximize safety.

The original standards would have progressively required greater and greater improvements in fuel economy from 2020 to 2025.  There are three very good reasons why these standards needed to be changed.

Since 2012, the world oil market has been turned upside down by the fracking revolution in the United States, which turned the charts for future gasoline prices from sharp upward trends to flat forecasts.   In January U.S. oil production exceeded 10 million barrels per day for the first time since 1970, and put the U.S. third in the world in total production. This dramatic change completely undercuts the belief that fuel economy standards are necessary to protect consumers from rising prices that they did not foresee when they purchased new cars.  It also substantially reduces concerns about oil price shocks, as confirmed in an independent, scholarly study done by Resources for the Future last year.

Second, more careful analysis laid out in the PRIA reveals that technological opportunities for further improvements in fuel economy are limited, so that manufacturers are likely to have to resort to reducing the weight of even the smallest and most efficient vehicles to achieve sufficient gains.  This then increases the risk of fatalities in traffic accidents, so that continuing to tighten standards would be likely to lead to more traffic deaths.

Finally, the PRIA finds that the expectations of technology improvements that were relied on to set the original standards have turned out to be overly-optimistic.  The study discusses exhaustively how the technology assumptions justifying the old standards turned out to be incorrect. In some cases, it was because the writers of the Obama rule did not realize how extensively some technologies were already in use, and so double-counted the benefits. In others, they anticipated adoption of new technologies which did not appear or which encountered such strong consumer resistance that they were pulled back.  More generally, many technologies can be used to improve fuel economy, or performance, or allow more amenities to be added. Manufacturers have followed consumer preferences by supplying a mix of all three. As the RIA perceptively states, sacrificing such amenities or performance to achieve tighter standards is a hidden consumer cost.

How the RIA values damages from greenhouse gas emissions is also important. The Obama Administration justified tightening fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by estimating the total global damages that would be avoided.  Despite telling criticisms of the analysis done to estimate the social cost of carbon dioxide emissions, the PRIA made only the abundantly sensible change to include only damages estimated for the United States. That, it turns out, makes a significant difference in the comparison of costs incurred in the U.S. to the benefits included in the analysis.  

Putting all this together, the PRIA rolls out 1500 pages of documentation of its calculations of costs and benefits and concludes that the alternative chosen – freezing the standards at 2020 levels – provides greater social benefits, greater consumer satisfaction, and lower fatalities than any of the more stringent alternatives.

Despite the quality of the analysis and sensibility of the new standards, the debate will not be settled soon.  Some economists have become convinced through behavioral studies that consumers consistently make mistakes in buying new cars, and later regret not buying cars with better fuel economy.  Whether this particular form of buyers’ remorse constitutes a market failure that justifies the nanny state telling consumers what to do is another question.

A more challenging problem is that California now sets its own fuel economy standards that are adopted by 17 other states, and the standards set in the Obama Administration were chosen to match those increasingly ambitious state standards.  The new proposal would, if nothing were done about the state standards, create one standard for 32 states and another for 18. Some manufacturers, led by GM, are adamant that there must be a single 50-state standard, and the 18 states have already announced their intention to look for a judge to overturn the new standards.  

There is a simple solution to GM’s problem, because California must receive a waiver from EPA to set its own standards.  The criterion is that California’s standards must protect public health and welfare at least as strictly as federal law, and their standards must be necessary “to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.”  Waivers to allow California to solve its unique smog problem made sense.

But greenhouse gas emission standards – which are the same as fuel economy standards – are not the same.  Greenhouse gas emissions originating from cars sold in California are dispersed globally and have only a negligible effect, if any, on California. Since GHG emissions are global in their effect, none of the geographic and demographic conditions that give California an extraordinary problem with smog apply to greenhouse gases.  That makes the waiver that allows California to set its own fuel economy standards a mistake in the first place, and the logical next step for the Administration should be to rescind the waiver.

That, in addition to the perennial disagreements about the need for any fuel economy standards, would make things very interesting.  Stay tuned.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.


Trump, Trade, and Negotiating Style by David Montgomery



Very nearly all economists favor free trade, and most have been disturbed by the tariffs that President Trump instituted and proposed to escalate. Even though most recognize that many countries — in particular China – do not practice free trade, it is feared that President Trump’s actions could lead to retaliation that would further increase trade barriers and harm all of us.

Thus far, the President has only imposed tariffs applicable to all countries on aluminum and steel, and Canada, Mexico and the European Union retaliated with tariffs on an equal value of U.S. goods. (South Korea, Australia, Brazil and Argentina were permanently exempted) He imposed additional tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods, with the stated purpose of retaliation for theft of intellectual property. China retaliated with equal tariffs on a large number of U.S. goods, and the U.S. further retaliated with a proposal for tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

The motivation for the administration’s current trade policy remains something of a puzzle. At times, President Trump’s statements sound like old fashioned populist protectionism, an affliction that has broken out at intervals throughout American history. At the other pole, his advisors suggest that it is an historic effort to move the entire world toward a much freer system of trade. Most of the time, the President appears to trying to get the upper hand by threatening tariffs in bilateral negotiations covering a much wider range of issues. Sometimes it appears that an amicable agreement is forthcoming, then the pendulum swings to threats of even tougher measures.

Complicating all this is that President Trump does not approach problems in a linear fashion, but seems to favor a chaotic approach using many tactics on several different fronts at the same time. Therefore, he may not have any interest in the predictable outcome of some action, but rather sees it as creating an opportunity to make a gain in an entirely different direction. Rather like the play on which the Eagles defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

In order to get a handle on both motivations and likely outcomes, it is useful to distinguish between Europe and China. In the case of Europe, threats of tariffs are fraught and difficult to see succeeding. In the case of China, tariffs could produce some short-term economic disruption, but China is a huge offender in the global trade system and would almost certainly come out the loser in a trade war with the United States.

President Trump has challenged European leaders on many fronts, including trade, currencies, defense, and purchases of Russian natural gas.

President Trump’s trade advisor Lawrence Kudlow has justified tariffs on our allies as an effort to move the entire world toward a system of freer trade. Nor is there any question that European governments subsidize and protect favored industries and impose taxes and tariffs on imports from the U.S. that we do not reciprocate. But it will be very difficult to convince Europe to abandon its statist approach to industrial policy and its territorial approach to taxation.

Those policies are deeply ingrained in European politics. From French farmers to the Europe-wide Airbus industry, the subsidies that Trump wants to change are as deeply engrained as our ethanol subsidies. The VAT system that eliminates taxes on exports and taxes all imports is equally embedded in EU tax policy. Perhaps recognizing this, President Trump responded differently to European retaliatory measures than he did to Chinese, taking no action when the EU put them in place.

Since there are many other issues in play in U.S – European relations, President Trump’s actions may well be intended to change Europe’s position in national security areas or in economic policy toward China rather European trade policy per se.

European countries are not living up to their pledges on defense spending or equitably sharing the burden of defending Europe against Russia. Most past administrations pressured Europe to pay its share and Trump’s efforts are no different, except possibly in how hard he is willing to push.

To make matters worse, by building a pipeline to get more Russian natural gas,  Europeans make themselves vulnerable to economic blackmail and strengthen Russia relative to the rest of the West – including us.

In addition, European countries have not yet made up their minds about whether to respect renewed U.S. sanctions against Iran. Should European financial institutions provide credit to entities trading with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions, it would be within the power of the President to block access of those European financial institutions to the worlds most important financial market – ours. Though not directly related, his rattling the sabers of tariffs could be seen as a signal that he would not back away from that showdown.

Turning to China, the fact to keep in mind is that we import four times as much from China as they import from us.

Dumping – or selling exports for less than they cost to produce – and currency manipulation are often cited as unfair trade policies of the Chinese government that sustain this surplus. However, our issues with China actually have relatively little to do with China’s surplus in merchandise trade with the U.S. The most important issue is probably China’s widespread theft of intellectual property, unpunished if not sanctioned by the Communist Party.

China also blocks U.S. investment in China in a variety of ways, some explicit like regulations on where and how foreign companies may invest and some informal, including the lack of protection for minority investors under Chinese “law.” Chinese courts remain almost feudal in their favoritism toward native Chines parties to lawsuits, especially those related geographically or demographically to the court.

These practices harm companies from all technologically advanced countries that deal with China.

Outside trade and investment per se, China’s foreign policy is directly opposed to U.S. interests. Its patronage of North Korea is the only reason the Kim regime still exists. China’s efforts to expand its influence and territory in the South China Sea now threaten all maritime trade and world peace.

Unfortunately for China, the very trade surplus that Chinese policies have created means that we could do a great more harm to China in a tariff war than they could do to us. China’s economy is in general more vulnerable to an economic shock than ours, and the financial sector that invested in the industries whose exports would be cut off by tariffs is particularly fragile. Inducing changes in those areas is also clearly part of the Trump strategy.

For a while, after announcing the first round of tariffs, President Trump appeared to be developing good personal relations with Chairman Xi and some help with North Korea. But ultimately China’s reaction to the recent imposition of tariffs was hostile. China retaliated with its own tariffs and cancelled purchases of soybeans. President Trump then raised the stakes, proposing tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. On Saturday he moved the number up to the full $500 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S. He is counting on having the deeper pockets in this poker game.

It might not be a risk I would take, but it is not unreasonable for President Trump to use his advantage in a bilateral trade war to exert pressure on Chinese trade and foreign policy in this way. If his actions toward Europe, including proffered exemptions from tariffs, induce those allies to join with the U.S. in putting trade pressure on China, his hand would be strengthened even more.

If tariffs soften Europeans up on issues other than China, that would likewise be all to the good. Serious economic and political risks would only appear if the current rather minor tiff with Europe over aluminum and steel is escalated. That seems unlikely right now, but extending tariffs to automobiles and other goods could start a trade war we would both lose.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Automated Vehicles Could Eliminate the Need for Another Bay Bridge by David Montgomery


Signs announcing opposition to a third span over the Chesapeake Bay are already popping up in Queen Anne and Kent County.   Governor Hogan initiated a study of the need, possible location, and potential cost of a new span in 2016, and consultations with potentially affected communities began earlier this year.

There is no question that the Bay Bridge is subject to time-wasting congestion during our evening commutes back to the Eastern Shore and on summer weekends when vacationers head to the beaches.  The number of vehicles trying to cross the bridge is projected to increase by over 30% by 2040, ultimately turning congestion into gridlock.

Relieving that current and projected future congestion is the reason given for building an additional span over the Bay.  But more construction may not be necessary if automated vehicles take over the market as other projections suggest.

I have been working with an organization known as SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy) on a study of the potential costs and benefits of automated vehicles for the past year.  It was released on June 13. These are some highlights.

New cars already incorporate many new technologies that automate driving tasks:  adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assistance, collision avoidance, and self-parking to name a few.  Many experts and auto companies foresee rapid improvement in these fledgling technologies, to the point that vehicles could drive themselves with little or no need for driver intervention.  Google and Uber are already ordering and testing such vehicles (as news of a recent pedestrian fatality caused by faulty programming of hazard detection and response logic made everyone aware).

In our study, SAFE projected that with favorable technology advances and market conditions, over 90% of passenger miles traveled by 2040 could be in fully automated vehicles.  The capabilities of those vehicles would make it possible to move all the projected traffic over the Bay Bridge in 2040 with zero congestion and no new construction.

Some preliminary projections from the Maryland Department of Transportations set the context.  The Bay Bridge now carries more than 70,000 vehicles a day. MDOT expects that to grow to 92,000 by 2040.  The average traffic volume during weekends in the summer is forecasted to grow to 125,900 vehicles per day by 2040, a 31 percent increase from 2013.

A December 2004 Transportation Needs Report from MDOT analyzed hourly congestion levels, which are what really matter. With the level of traffic projected for 2040, about 5,750 vehicles per hour would attempt to cross the bridge during the weekend peak period of 2 – 5 PM.  Peak weekday traffic going eastbound would be over 4000 vehicles per hour between 4 and 5 PM.

MDOT estimates that when fewer than 2000 vehicles per hour are crossing in the three westbound lanes there is no congestion and when 2000 vehicles per hour are crossing eastbound there will be only occasional slowdowns.

When more than 3000 vehicles per hour attempt to cross in either direction, traffic breaks down and stop and go traffic is the rule.  With that constraint, the levels of traffic projected for 2040 would be catastrophic.

An MDOT study guessed that a new span could cost up to $6.85 billion, and would require other road network upgrades.  With the time required for planning, debating and construction, it is unlikely that would do anything for congestion for at least a decade or possibly longer.


Vehicle automation that we are likely to see could make that new span unnecessary by the time the money is spent.

There are three major ways in which vehicle automation can reduce or eliminate congestion.   The technologies that are required include detection of surrounding vehicles and communication of traffic conditions together with automatic control of speed, braking and lane changing.  These automated capabilities would

  1. Allow vehicles to travel safely with much smaller distances between vehicles
  2. Eliminate the accordion effects created by lane changing and human reaction times for braking and accelerating
  3. Prevent accidents that are the major cause of congestion not caused by inadequate capacity.

Just the first of these benefits, shorter headway, would dramatically increase bridge capacity.

With anything over 2000 vehicles per hour now causing some form of congestion, and potential peak traffic of 5750 per hour during weekends in 2040, the capacity of the bridge would have to be nearly tripled to avoid weekday and weekend congestion.   The worst forms of congestion now appear when traffic exceeds 3000 vehicles per hour, and just to avoid those conditions capacity would have to be doubled.

Building an additional bridge with the same one-way capacity as the current bridge would provide just barely enough additional capacity to accommodate weekday rush hour traffic without congestion, and would still put weekend traffic into stop and go conditions much of the time.

In contrast, cutting the distance between vehicles in half at highway speeds would double the number of vehicles that could cross the bridge with no congestion.  An automated vehicle will be much faster than a human being in braking to avoid a rear-end collision, and communication between vehicles will give it advance warning of traffic conditions far beyond line of sight.  

It is straightforward algebra to determine that if the bridge can handle 2000 vehicles per hour with current distances maintained between vehicles, it could handle 4000 vehicles per hour with half that spacing and 6000 vehicles per hour with one-third the spacing.  From my calculations, the current capacity of the 2-lane eastbound bridge translates into about a 3-second distance between vehicles when traffic is flowing smoothly. If the faster reaction times and ability to observe distant changes in traffic flow characteristic of AVs reduced that to a 1-second distance, the needed tripling of bridge capacity would be achieved.

Thus if AV technology and the share of AVs in the total vehicle fleet progresses to the point that headways can be cut to one-third of the current prevailing distance, there would be no need for a new bridge.  All the needed additional capacity would be provided at no extra cost by the automated vehicle fleet.

What does that imply as a prudent course of action now?  

First, the advancement of AV technology and introduction of automated vehicles should be monitored carefully to determine how introduction of AVs is changing capacity requirements.  For example, traffic studies have found that even if as few as 10% of the vehicles crossing the bridge have automated capabilities, they can smooth out traffic flow.

Second, traffic systems on the bridge should be updated to take advantage of automated capabilities as soon as they appear – for example, creating reserved lanes for vehicles with collision avoidance and automatic cruise control systems once there are enough to utilize such lanes fully.  

Third, traffic management measures like congestion-varying tolls could be used to spread out traffic on the existing bridge, until enough AVs are on the road to increase its peak capacity.  These have been proven on Virginia freeways and would work even better if automated vehicles obtained real time information on tolls.

With this combination of incremental improvements in capacity as AVs become more prevalent and the ultimate increase in capacity from a fully automated fleet, the disruption and expense of a third span over the Chesapeake might be avoided completely.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America, David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Enough Is Enough by David Montgomery


It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a civil and temperate political columnist when the liberal media reach new low after new low in deranged attacks on the President and his family. If the inability of left-wing bigots to express themselves without four-letter words and personal insults were not enough, the double standard applied by their bosses and sycophants is beyond belief.

Roseanne Barr was terminated immediately when she characterized Obama’s crony Valerie Jarrett as progeny of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes. I still can’t figure out how a terrorist organization and old movie can have children, and I suspect that an explanation of the joke might have been more appropriate than her abject apologies. But she never had a chance, her bosses found it sufficiently offensive to cancel a wildly popular show that just happened to be the only one on television featuring pro-Trump (or anti-anti-Trump) humor.

Samantha Bee, on the other hand, got a free pass from her bosses and congratulations from self-proclaimed feminists and the Hollywood left for calling the President’s daughter a “feckless c…”. No doubt about Bee’s intentions to use a demeaning sexist term, the crudest she could have chosen, and broadcast it on her show. Her additional, less quoted, comment that Ivanka should put on something “low and tight” to stimulate her father was even more cringe-worthy. Yet her network’s only reaction is to congratulate her for apologizing. Bee and her bosses are apparently too dumb to remember how their heads exploded when a recording of Donald Trump using a much tamer word surfaced.

Nor was there any outrage in the media about Bill Maher’s use of simian comparisons, when he asked if Trump was “part orangutan.” They have no shame in their double standard, and they all know which side they are on.

We are well beyond the point that any sane person could claim these crude and personal attacks are tit-for-tat responses to something that Candidate Trump said during the campaign. Saying, as he did recently, that Maxine Waters should take an IQ test may not be the best way of pointing out how dumb her positions and statements are, but it is a far cry from sexist personal attacks on a President’s daughter.

True, most of the obscene language in attacks on the President or his supporters comes from talentless celebrities – Bee, Kathie Griffin, Chelsea Handler – whose only claim to distinction is their gross behavior and language. So no one expects them to make intelligent comments. But their choice of targets has clear political motivation and support from their employers.

These avatars of the left are not just doing their shtick of substituting obscenity for creative uses of language in humor. Samantha Bee launched into her sexist attack on Ivanka Trump in a monologue on immigration policy. Since there was little else of substance in that monologue, even when she was addressing immigration, the tactic is clear. Don’t try to engage on issues, just attack the person. It is so much easier to get a professional shock artist to call people names than to construct a logical sentence about the policy itself.

The problem is not just so-called comedians whose vocabulary does not get beyond four letter words. Stephen Colbert mostly watches his language, but he, too, substitutes personal attacks, condescension and demeaning jokes for substance. These comics and late night hosts have become instruments of psychological manipulation and social pressure to make their viewers feel that any defense of President Trump’s policies is deviant and antisocial.

I would rather have a root canal without anesthesia than watch any of them, but reports of the rest of Bee’s show reveal deeper problems. It was an emotional attack on Trump for doing exactly the same thing that Obama did. Her inexcusable attack on Ivanka for displaying a happy picture of herself with her son was to make the point that parents who cross the border illegally are being separated from their children. But that was also the law and the practice in the Obama Administration. None of these liberal icons attacked Michelle and Barack for enjoying the company of their daughters while illegal entrants were being separated. The double standard at work.

It is pointless for conservatives to push for the firing of Bee or Maher. It won’t happen and they, however despicable, would quickly be replaced with voices no better. Their job security does reveal the attitude of news and social media, corporations, film companies, networks and foundations controlled by “progressive” executives and billionaires toward the rest of us. Asking them to “play nice” and setting a good example in conservative commentary is pointless when their support of incivility is a purposeful strategy.

But we are left with a puzzle. Is the left so consumed with hatred of President Trump that it cannot even distinguish his policies from those of his predecessor? Or is it purposely drumming up hatred of the President and his supporters in order to marginalize all those who oppose the future that the far left and its media cheerleaders want for this country?

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy. He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America, David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Why Do Christians Put Up With Trump? By W. David Montgomery


“How can practicing Christians support a President as immoral as Donald Trump?” The question has become a popular one in certain literary circles, and more important to me it is one that serious friends ask me.

The answer to the question seems quite simple:

Donald Trump offered the hope of making right what was going horribly wrong in our country. Alternative candidates stood for policies that would make things worse, and were beset with deep character flaws of their own.

Candidate Trump was unabashedly pro-life and willing to defend religious freedom. He stood for a stronger national defense after 8 years of appeasement and neglect. He understood and stated clearly that Western Civilization is under attack from Islamic militants. He supported Israel unreservedly and was willing to lead from the front. He saw how excessive taxation and regulation combined to give us the worst recovery from a recession on record.

His brash style was not only attractive to those alienated from mainstream politics, but also provided a deeper resonance that he understood their feelings of being left behind economically, of increasing government intrusion into their lives, of schools that taught children things that parents did not believe and put them at risk to sexual deviants, and of being ridiculed by celebrities, media and his opponent.

I hold that Trump was wrong to promote the myth that immigration and imports kill jobs and hurt Americans, and I have already written enough on that. We can try to convince him on those topics over time.

Turning from policies to words and personal behavior, his denunciations of Hispanics, tasteless remarks about women and sex, and marital infidelities were also negatives for many of us who voted for him. On the other hand, we support his efforts to scrutinize entrants from countries that breed terrorists as prudent policies not evidence of some personal bias against Moslems.

Allegations about Trump’s lack of truthfulness have been rampant but remain unproven. His obvious willingness to exaggerate facts and numbers in support of his own opinions contrasted to Hilary’s memorization of the most minor detail and skill at devious answers, and for that reason was probably as much a successful tactic as a character defect. “It was a feature, not a bug” to quote Microsoft.

Commentators differ on whether this is a reasonable point of view or evidence that conservative Catholics and evangelicals have become homophobic, xenophobic and otherwise deplorable. My conscience is clear in supporting Trump for these reasons.
There are enough positives and negatives in my own assessment that this result was not pre-ordained. Despite efforts to caricature him, President Trump presents a complex picture of sound and unsound policies and personal virtues and vices.

Some might claim that I am myself co-operating with evil by concluding that President Trump’s actions as President on balance advance the common good and violate no moral laws. That is not how my moral education sees it. For this I take guidance from Pacem in Terris by Pope Saint John XXIII, who discussed at length how in this world most leaders do not share the moral framework to which we as Christians adhere. That makes it necessary to work for as much good as possible in public affairs, recognizing that we must as Christians settle for less than perfection and work with the moral infirmities and motivations of those in power. While at all times trying to change their moral framework.

Of primary importance, President Trump’s policies are consistent with moral laws regarding the taking of innocent life, sex and marriage, and freedom of conscience, no matter how his personal life may differ.

His policies on the economy, foreign policy, immigration and healthcare do not directly run up against moral absolutes, and are matters of prudential judgment of how best to accomplish what moral law prescribes.

Applying the tests of adherence to moral laws and practical effect, I conclude that President Trump’s policies contain no grave moral errors, do some practical harm and achieve a great deal of practical good. Far better than I could have expected of anyone else.

But the question about supporting the President, once all this is out in the open, reverts to his personal, allegedly immoral behavior. Put this way, the question suggests that Christians are hypocritical in supporting someone who blatantly violates their moral prescriptions. A writer in the National Review put it that “Christians had good reasons to vote for Trump but that does not mean they had to join his tribe” and goes on to express dismay at religious leaders appearing with, praying with, and complimenting the President.

It is not that Christians are indifferent to sexual immorality. As one theologian put it recently, “The premise of the Sexual Revolution is antisocial, and its effects are socially destructive, as every pope since Leo XIII has shown, including Francis.” This includes sex in any form outside of marriage, pornography, and the entire LGBTQ agenda.

There is no question that we believe that the acts of which Trump is accused are gravely immoral. Ironically, those who are most preoccupied with President’ Trump’s alleged sexual immorality have for the most part been vocal supporters of the sexual revolution and demanded freedom for consenting partners to engage in any kind of genital activity they enjoy. The question is what our faith and moral compass require us to do about it.

Those who question how “conservative Christians” can support Donald Trump seem on the most part to be working with a caricature of Christian moral thought. Many of those who raise the question are Social Justice Warriors who themselves call Trump supporters “vile human beings” and condemn every utterance that might contain a micro-aggression or expression of hostility or condescension to some “marginalized group.” unless they are directed at someone who voted for Trump. They seem to expect Christians to behave in a similar way, by judging, denouncing and ostracizing any public figure who violates the Sixth Commandment.

That is an ignorant and biased picture of Christian morality and even more offensive than their hypocrisy about sexual license. There are at least three admonitions that prevent us from condemning others as sinners. They also apply to other personal vices that do not have consequences of public concern.

First, “judge not that you be not judged.” In the parable of the adulterous woman, Christ shamed their accusers with the challenge “he among you is guiltless, should cast the first stone.” The point is that we firmly believe that many matters are between a man, his spouse, his priest and his Maker, and that we should mind our own business unless directly affected.

Second, “God’s ways are not the ways of men.” David had Bathsheba, yet is still honored as the greatest of the Kings of Israel and the ancestor of Our Incarnate Lord. Trump never sent one of his future wives husbands out to certain death in battle so that he could marry her. More broadly, God does not necessarily select saints to carry out his plan for the good of his people – as the sexual infidelities of honored Presidents like Kennedy, Eisenhower, and FDR and leaders like Martin Luther King attest.

Third, the whole point is that “We are all sinners.” I am far from perfect, and I cannot expect more of anyone else. Some are more virtuous than others, but that rarely seems to include successful politicians. One of the most infuriating misconceptions is that Christians see themselves as perfect and judge the morals of everyone they encounter. No doubt some do, but they violate the explicit command of the Head of our church. We know that President Trump has not been accused of anything we have not been tempted to do.

So lets get over the hypocrisy bit. Church attendance is not virtue signaling.
We do not go to services to show off how perfect we are, we go because we are sinners seeking to do better. More precisely, since Jesus walked the earth we have been enjoined to do the latter and not the former.

Thus I feel no moral obligation to condemn or defend the President for carnal sins.

I am instead convinced that we who voted for Trump did so for valid and urgent reasons, that as President he has done a remarkable job in delivering what we hoped for, and that our concerns and Trump’s policies are consistent with Christian morality and social ethics.

His personal failings, and likewise mine, will be judged by a Higher Authority than even The Atlantic magazine.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

Lessons for the DNC from Richard Nixon by David Montgomery



Richard Nixon could teach today’s Democrats a lesson in putting the country ahead of partisan gain.

The Democratic Party on Friday, April 20 filed a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit against Trump campaign officials, the Russian government and WikiLeaks alleging a widespread conspiracy to tilt the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor.

“The conspiracy constituted an act of previously unimaginable treachery: the campaign of the presidential nominee of a major party in league with a hostile foreign power to bolster its own chance to win the Presidency,” the suit states.

“During the 2016 presidential campaign, Russia launched an all-out assault on our democracy, and it found a willing and active partner in Donald Trump’s campaign,” said DNC Chairman Tom Perez in a statement, calling the alleged collusion “an act of unprecedented treachery.

Not all Democrats agreed. US congresswoman Jackie Speier of San Francisco, who has a law degree, told CNN that “I think this sidebar lawsuit is not in the interest of the American people.” But the DNC does not care.

How anyone could be so willing to destabilize our constitutional system is impossible for me to understand. Even their obvious affliction with Trump Derangement Syndrome and alliances with the radicals that have taken over the Women’s March and BLM is insufficient to explain why a political organization that pretends to care about the future of the country would try so hard to provoke a constitutional crisis. Than again, this might be no more than an effort to start a digging expedition under the guise of “discovery” for anything that could be used in their “get rid of Trump at any cost” campaign.

The partisan myopia afflicting current politics makes it worthwhile repeating how Vice President Richard Nixon dealt with the apparent fraud that handed the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy. The 1960 election turned out to be one of the closest elections in this nation’s history. Nixon always believed that election was stolen – another word for rigged – by ballot stuffing in Cook County and in Texas.

There was a lot of evidence he was right. Earl Mazo, a Washington reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, investigated claims of voter fraud in the 1960 election. He was quoted as saying: There was a cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and voted. I remember a house. It was completely gutted. There was nobody there. But there were 56 votes for [John F.] Kennedy in that house. He then went to Lyndon Johnson’s Texas, where he found similar circumstances.

Roger Stone tells the story more dramatically: “Mayor Daley himself gave away the game on election eve when he said, ‘With the Democratic organization and the help of a few close friends,’ the Democrats would prevail on election day. There is sufficient evidence that the ‘few close friends’ mentioned include Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana… The evidence of voter fraud in Texas, where the Kennedy-Johnson ticket carried the state by a scant 50,000 votes was as widespread and odious as that of the daily machine in Chicago.”

The New York Herald Tribune started publishing Mazo’s articles when still-Vice President Nixon intervened and told Mazo that “Our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis” in the midst of the Cold War. Rather than follow a course that would polarize and weaken the nation, Nixon chose to leave the White House for a time.

A recent article congratulates Nixon for his patriotic act. Ironically, this article was written before election day as a warning to Donald Trump of the bad things that would happen if he were to contest the results as rigged.

“Despite the razor-thin margin, Nixon publicly conceded defeat very early the morning after the election, shortly before Kennedy declared victory. Nixon did not encourage Republicans to regard the country as locked in a permanent civil war, or to treat the incoming president as a usurper. [How different from the Never-Trumpers and impeachment nuts]

To the contrary, on January 6, 1961, he discharged his responsibility as president of the Senate and presided over the congressional tally of the electoral college vote. ‘In our campaigns,’ he told the joint session of Congress, ‘no matter how hard they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.’ Nixon noted that he was the first vice president since 1860 to declare his opponent the winner (outgoing Vice President John C. Breckenridge performed the same task for Abraham Lincoln). It was a ‘striking example of the stability of our constitutional system.”

For the good of the country, Nixon decided to accept the verdict and move on.

And that’s the difference. The threat to our democracy is not the thought, the idea or the charge that an election was stolen or rigged or unfair. It has happened. The threat to our democracy is the refusal to accept the verdict of the election.

Nixon was advised in 1960 to contest the election. He decided not to do so for the good of the country. The DNC could learn a great deal from a politician they loathe, but who showed more character and love of country than any of them are demonstrating today.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

An Earth Day Fable by David Montgomery



The April 22 anniversary of Earth Day inspired, predictably enough, an article in the New Yorker bewailing the dissipation of the environmental sentiments of the 1970s, epitomized by the ignominious defeat of the Waxman-Markey bill to combat global warming in 2010. I learned from the New Yorker that several new books and studies attempt to diagnose the reasons for this dreadful moral failure and devise new strategies to accomplish the goal. Fortunately, the New Yorker goes in for long articles, and I was educated about the content of the books without having to read them.

The lesson taken from these books by the New Yorker is that the youthful energy of Earth Day led to passage of landmark legislation – the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Then in the 21st Century, the movement sold out by making an alliance with big business to combat global warming.

According to one of the books, “the original Earth Day remains a model of effective political organizing .… educational, school-based, widely distributed, locally controlled, and mass-participatory.” But then the environmental movement became “an established presence in Washington,” willing to make deals with business and Republicans (the author does admit that all the grand successes came when Republicans were President).

In the New Yorker narrative, aging heads of established environmental organizations became enamored of “cap-and-trade, a system of tradable permits for carbon emissions … because that seemed to be the best way to bring business on board.” They had funding that no one dreamed of on Earth Day and spent it lavishly to promote climate legislation.

Yet they failed – and nothing resembling an explanation is offered, beyond the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy of observing that becoming insiders and deal-makers happened first, then the grand game was lost. Nevertheless, the author wishes for a return to the grass-roots organization and events to recharge the enthusiasm of Earth Day and produce — something.

The failure of the Waxman-Markey bill, the cap and trade legislation on which the New Yorker focused, is easily explained without reverting to grand theories of grassroots organizing versus insider deal-making. It was a bad piece of legislation, and it turned into a Christmas tree of favors to get votes from basically indifferent legislators. Unfortunately, there were not enough favors to go around once the sharks smelled the bait of free allowances and Waxman and Markey tried to incorporate all the contrary agendas of the environmental left.

The sentimental haze of time has allowed many who should know better to refer to Waxman-Markey as a cap-and-trade bill. It did contain a cap-and-trade system, but most of its 1400 pages were taken up with additional regulations, subsidies, and exemptions that eliminated most of the potential benefits of cap and trade. I was one of the pioneers advancing the concept of cap and trade as environmental policy, and I can tell the difference.

A brief explanation of cap and trade and list of provisions of the Waxman-Markey bill is necessary for understanding of what happened. Cap and trade starts with a cap – for example, the bill required that in 2020 carbon dioxide emission must be no larger than 83% of 1990 levels. EPA would then print out emission permits, possibly in one-ton denominations, equal to the limit. Every source of emissions would have to turn in a permit for each ton of carbon dioxide it released in 2020. Emissions would be kept under the hard cap by the fact that only that many permits would be printed. Permits were called “allowances” in the bill, and I will use that name from here on.

The price of allowances would be established by supply and demand. Sources that could control their emissions at a cost less than the market price would do so, and those that could not would purchase allowances. The market price would adjust so that actual emissions equaled the limit.

Cap and trade does just one thing: it puts a limit, chosen by legislators, on greenhouse gas emissions, and it provides just the right incentives for the private sector to choose the least cost ways of achieving that reduction.

That is all theory, and it works as the Title IV program of the Clean Air Act that cleaned up Acid Rain proved. The Acid Rain program was able to get the votes to be included in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 because it replaced a very badly designed program, foisted on the public by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) to protect his coal industry. Unfortunately, three new factors made it impossible to repeat that success with climate policy.

First, the electric utilities responsible for most sulfur emissions, the precursors of acid rain, were already regulated, and cap and trade was an unambiguous improvement. Instead of expensive and for many unnecessary controls, the utilities got flexibility to choose the cheapest way of complying – which was mostly stopping the use of Senator Byrd’s high-sulfur coal. In particular, there was no real fight about how to decide what limit to apply to each utility, since they already were required to reduce their emissions.

Limits on carbon dioxide were new. There was no historical regulatory limit to refer to in allocating allowances. That turned the fight for allowances into a free-for-all. Not only were the actual sources of carbon dioxide fighting among themselves for allowances, but every other interest group with any hint of a claim to be doing something about global warming claimed a right to some as well.

Barbara Boxer let the cat out of the bag when she observed that the bill contained “hundreds of billions of dollars worth of allowances that Congress could allocate to deserving purposes” – such as re-election.

The second reason for failure is that cap and trade imposes a very visible cost on every form of energy. Translating from dollars per ton of carbon to dollars per gallon of gasoline or dollars per kilowatt hour of electricity is a matter of simple multiplication, and everyone involved made those calculations loudly and visibly. There were large disagreements about what the price of carbon would be, but there was no way to hide the fact that a cost there would be.

The entire history of environmental regulation, by means of regulatory agencies that impose specific emission limits on cars, trucks, powerplants, and industries, is one of concealing the cost of those regulations and convincing gullible voters that “business” is paying all the cost and consumers get a free ride. That is just about impossible with cap and trade, and even harder with a carbon tax.

The third reason is that the environmental movement did lose something in the years after Earth Day. Instead of concentrating on the environmental problems – clean air and water and endangered species – it became the voice for a whole range of inconsistent causes: ban nuclear power, mandate energy efficiency, promote renewable energy, use ethanol even if it is worse than gasoline, limit population, get rid of fossil fuels, punish the oil companies, and on and on. Just cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the most cost-effective way was no longer enough to satisfy the desires of the environmental left.

So, Representative Waxman’s first task in the House of Representatives was to see how much he could sweeten the deal for just enough Democrats to get the bill passed. He did this by distributing allowances to buy votes and adding regulatory measures and subsidies for favored industries and environmentalists varied causes.

So allowances were divvied up politically. Some were auctioned to provide revenues to be spent on politically-salient causes, of the rest electric utilities got the most, 15% were to be given to industries that could prove they were threatened by competitors in countries doing nothing about global warming, 10% went to states to spend on renewables and energy conservation, and other free allowances went to autos, efforts to capture and sequester carbon dioxide, and forestry programs.

Distributing allowances arbitrarily or politically does not alter the economic merits of cap and trade, as long as it is not done in a really dumb way, but it does have a great deal to do with political success or failure.

But this was not enough. Contrary to the New Yorker fantasy of a sell-out to the big business desire for cap and trade, the bill was bulked up to its 1400 or so pages by adding substantive provisions that environmentalists demanded in order to support cap and trade.

These included a requirement that utilities to meet a certain percentage of their load with electricity generated from renewable sources; like wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal, promotion of small-scale generation with extra allowances, taxing utilities in addition to cap and trade to create a carbon sequestration research fund, subsidizing specific CO2 reduction technologies singled out in the law, setting CO2 emission standards for coal-fired powerplants even though it would have no effect on total emissions, requiring utilities to support electric vehicles, mandating stricter building codes to reduce energy use, mandating tougher energy efficiency standards for lighting and consumer goods, requiring tighter fuel economy standards for cars, and setting industrial energy efficiency standards.

None of these provisions do anything to reduce emissions further than the cap and trade program would do on its own. To the extent that they do anything at all, they simply require that more costly ways of reducing emissions be substituted for the least cost ways that the price of allowances gives everyone an incentive to adopt.

The result was fine-tuned to pass the House of Representatives by a slim margin, but it then ran into the problem that there are two Houses of Congress, and Senators have very different constituencies and political debts than their House colleagues. There is no way to construct an explicit and effective piece of comprehensive legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions that give enough electorally significant benefits to a majority of both the House and the Senate.

That’s partly because the cost is explicit and now and the benefits are uncertain and far off. So there are very few members of Congress who care about dealing with global warming explicitly and effectively. If the Senate leadership had modified the House bill to attract a majority of Senators, the result would have been defeated when it went back to the House. That is the fundamental reason we do not have cap and trade. Few in Congress cared about global warming per se, and there were not enough favors to go around to buy their votes.

All the tears shed about failure to pass the Waxman bill flow from an inability to tell the difference between good and bad legislation. Claim that a bill will fix global warming and its passage becomes a moral imperative, no matter that the bill has become a monstrous collection of favors, duplicative regulations and bad ideas. Not to mention being utterly ineffective on a global scale, except in the fantasy world that has China, India and others being so impressed by our naive willingness to make futile gestures that they have a come to Jesus moment and reverse their strongly held policy of growth at all costs.

A true return to Earth Day would be for environmentalists to drop their overriding interests in social engineering and moralizing about ineffective solutions, and turn back to caring about the problem itself. They have the opportunity to do that now, by backing a simple carbon tax to fund completion of the tax reform agenda. We will see if they pass the test.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

The Snake in the Internet Garden by David Montgomery


A major purpose of a liberal education, harking back to Greece and Rome, was once to prepare the student for the duties of citizenship. I am reminded of this by a recent news report of new digital techniques for creating fake news, in this case by manipulating the image of a person’s face to make it talk and say the words that another is speaking. President Trump confessing to numerous made up love affairs, or Speaker Pelosi condemning Planned Parenthood, for example. The dangers that the reporter cited included national security, political dirty tricks and in particular deceptions in social media.

I have to confess that my reaction was that anyone who believes what they read in social media deserves to be deceived, and the more I considered it, the more I liked that thought.

It should be difficult to deceive a thoughtful person about anything that matters. Scam artists exploit the greed of their victims as much as their gullibility. Trolls exploit the prejudices and hatreds of their audiences. Bloggers and politicians trust the intellectual laziness of their listeners to get away with contradicting themselves and perpetuating falsehoods that could be checked by looking up a single citation. The anonymity of the internet tempts many to pretend to be something they are not, for innocent or not so innocent purposes.

On the demand side, supposed friends and co-workers believe accusations that they see quoted in blogs or news services. In the grand tradition of gossip, neighbors read and start to believe the most outrageous inventions about their neighbors and their children.

There is nothing new about vulnerability to deception. The serpent tricked Eve, Jacob deceived his father to obtain the blessing intended for his brother Esau, and Iago convinced Othello that his wife was unfaithful. It did not take digital image manipulations and the internet to create opportunities for liars and deceivers.

Technology may raise the stakes, allow more people to be deceived at once and require more vigilance, but the remedy is still the same: “Trust but verify.”

That is where we get back to liberal education. There was also a time when education served to build character, and also to recognize character in others. Learning to read fiction well fosters an ability to recognize what is in character and what is not in character for a person in a story. Indeed, a large part of the craft of an author is to create and communicate character in such a way that the reader is able to see and understand why the figures in the story act as they do. It also fosters a critical sense of “that’s not right, ” recognition that some story lines are simply out of character.

The ability to assess character should thus serve as a check on gossip and on false news. The sense that “that is not what he or she would say” is usually a good guide.

Of course, there are times in novels and in real life that someone does something out of character, either more noble or more base than those who knew them would expect. Here is where verify comes in. If no one verifies stories, the liars will win. Even a few who are willing to check, if they are themselves gatekeepers of information, may be sufficient to break the train of re-tweeted falsehoods. If the story stands up – eyewitnesses, documentary evidence, forensic examination – then the improbable may be true.

The character of the observer matters, too. One virtue that seems lacking in this time of instant communication is prudence – in this case, prudence takes the form of “think before you type.” It may not be the original deception that matters, but the extent to which a deception is accepted as truth and instantly re-tweeted, leading to the outcome that no later correction can possibly reach all those whose opinion of a person, product or institution was warped.

The greater harm may come from the imprudence of those who observe the deception and fail to verify before trusting and acting on an unexpected claim. This reaction could be to repeat a harmful falsehood, or fall prey to an offer that is too good to be true. Charity is another helpful virtue, not to believe the worst of someone or something that was trusted for good reason, until proofs are checked. So is Temperance, to avoid being taken in by something that appeals to greed or other vices.

Logic and rhetoric were also topics in the classical and liberal curriculum that appear to be greatly neglected today. According to Aristotle, there are 13 fallacies commonly used in rhetoric. Some involve deceptive use of language — Accent, Amphiboly, Equivocation, Composition, Division, and Figure of Speech, and others are arguments that appear valid but are not — Accident, Affirming the Consequent, In a Certain Respect and Simply, Ignorance of Refutation, Begging the Question, False Cause, and Many Questions. At a guess, 95% of what politicians and politically motivated commentators say falls in one of these 13 categories.

Aristotle pre-dates digital manipulation by a good 24 centuries, and his analysis of fallacies was motivated by the speakers and politicians of his day, who stood on pedestals in the center of cities and were heard and believed by all the citizens. Not quite as large a census, but still immediate and universal coverage.

His purpose, as should be the purpose of our educational system, was to produce students who could recognize instantly a fallacious argument and state for themselves a correct manner of reasoning. That skill is not developed by indoctrinating students in the political correctness of the day, or by suppressing disagreement and debate in the interest of creating safe spaces. “Trigger alerts” do not develop critical habits of mind or argument.

The greatest danger of digital manipulation appears to be for those who have come to depend on their internet sources of tweets, blogs, and discussion groups where no observation that might trigger them to think will ever appear. Trust in these social groups appears to have taken the place of critical thought and reflection. Internet communication becomes a true Garden of Eden for snowflakes, to mix an irresistible metaphor. Maybe a few bites of the snake in these gardens will lead to a healthy distrust – and even exploration of the world outside those who agree on everything.

If all else fails, the proliferation of technology for deception might just produce its own Darwinian remedy – the recognition that there are no safe spaces in the internet. If it is impossible to tell what is true or false in blogs or news channels or social media, their users will get the message and start to use more traditional methods of obtaining and verifying information. That would not be a bad thing.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America. David and his wife, Esther, live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.