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Fads & myths make for poor public policy

| Sunday, April 10, 2011

New York Times columnist, best-selling author and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Friedman wishes America could be more like China. Specifically, he wishes we could adopt their authoritarian style in pursuit of the so-called green revolution and clean energy.

Casting what he calls an "envious eye" on China, Friedman finds that country's "one-party autocracy" so much more efficient, informed and wise than our messy democratic way of doing things.

"In China," Friedman explained on "Meet The Press" last year, "if the leadership can get around to an enlightened decision, it can order it from the top down." Meanwhile here in America, with our two-party system, "every solution is sub-optimal."

In his book "Hot, Flat and Crowded," Friedman offers what he believes to be an irrefutable example of China's superior sagacity and why he yearns for America to become "China for a day." You see, China's State Council prohibited free plastic bags and banned the "production, sale, and use of ultrathin plastic bags ... in order to get shoppers to use recyclable baskets and cloth satchels."

"Bam! Just like that -- 1.3 billion people, theoretically, will stop using thin plastic bags," he marveled. "Millions of barrels of petroleum will be saved, and mountains of garbage avoided."

The key to Friedman's analysis is the word "theoretically." Because, in reality China did no such thing. The country is still awash in plastic bags. And though you can be sent to the state's dungeons for innumerable crimes, using such bags isn't one of them -- yet.

Still, at least in theory, China is awesome because it can efficiently impose the right policies, right?

Wrong.

For years, I've been going after Friedman hammer and tongs for his authoritarian fetish. But perhaps the most damning critique is that banning plastic bags isn't necessarily the optimal policy.

A new study by the Environment Agency of England finds that those thin plastic bags have a smaller carbon footprint than reusable plastic or cotton satchels as well as disposable paper bags. According to "Evidence: Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags," you'd have to reuse a fashionable cotton bag at least 131 times to equal the low carbon footprint of a simple plastic bag.

If you reuse a plastic bag -- as a wastebasket liner perhaps -- they pull even further away as the most green technology.

Also, as other studies have shown, those trendy reusable bags provide a wonderful breeding ground for E. coli and other bacteria. That is, unless you wash them regularly. But if you do that, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ken Green notes, all that bleach, soap and hot water expand their carbon footprint as well.

Now, the humble plastic bag is far from perfect. But it is even further from the plague it has been made out to be. Certainly, the paper bag (my preferred food conveyance) is more deserving of outlaw status. That is, if you measure the worth of something solely by its carbon footprint -- a debatable practice to say the least.

Intriguingly, the British study was commissioned in 2005 but came out only in February. Some allege it was suppressed by Greens inside the former Labor government. If true, shame on them. Even so, there's a moral to the story as well.

Democratic elections -- and free news media -- bring such suppressed truths to light. That relatively open process might be too tardy or sloppy for people like Friedman but it is far more speedy than in places like China. After all, Beijing's much-ballyhooed fondness for markets came only after the country experimented with various schemes involving social engineering, starvation and mass murder on a staggering scale.

Even now, the country's rulers ruthlessly protect the myth of their own infallibility to the point where admitting error is tantamount to divulging state secrets.

There's this strange notion out there that experts, technocrats and planners are immune to the power of fads. But the simple truth is that the madness of crowds can infect professional crowds, too. Friedman looks to China and myopically sees them doing things he likes and concludes it must be because China is run by dispassionate geniuses.

Perhaps the Politburo simply drank the same Kool-Aid?

President Obama shares much of the mania than has afflicted Friedman. No, the president doesn't pine for autocracy but he is obsessed with China's mythological green revolution (the country has the dirtiest industrial economy in the world, building a new coal plant every 10 days). He's convinced that we can "win the future" with such boondoggles as high-speed rail and impractical fads such as wind and solar energy.

The good news is that he can't lock us into these policies without first convincing the public and their representatives. And if he does succeed in locking us in, we can unlock ourselves, too.

That's because it's America here -- every day of the year.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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