Power Transmission

Robert CaroAs I work my way through Robert Caro’s monumental four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, I’m repeatedly astonished by Caro’s gargantuan appetite for detail on the one hand, and his near total incuriosity about the big picture on the other.

Case in point: We get almost 40 densely packed pages on the appropriations (eventually totaling $25 million) for the Marshall Ford Dam and another 30 or so on what a dramatic change the dam (and the electricity it brought) made in the lives of Texas Hill Country farm families. But unless I overlooked it, we’re never told how many of those farm families were affected — and are thus left with absolutely no basis for thinking about whether this dam was a good investment.

At another point, we’re told of a $1.8 million expenditure to bring electric lines to 2892 Hill Country farms. (This is, of course, over and above the cost of the dam, which presumably benefited many more than just these 2892.) This time, thankfully, we are at least told how many families are affected. But since the expenditure comes to $622 per family in a time and place when one dollar a day was a good wage, where there was no running water and very little communication with the outside world, and where the soil was bad and getting worse, this raises the question of whether that $622 could have been better spent relocating that family to a better place. (All the moreso if we top off that $622 with the family’s pro rata share of the dam cost.) Caro never even acknowledges the question, pausing simply to celebrate the benefits of electricity, which, he seems to imply, were great and therefore (!) justified the expenditures.

Well, there are two ways you can get the benefits of electricity. The electricity can come to you, or you can go to it. Sometimes one way is better; sometimes the other. When conditions are as Caro describes them — with the land essentially worn out, starvation rampant, and everyone too poor to get a fresh start in, say, Austin — there’s a pretty good likelihood that the guy who could have helped you move, but instead spends a bundle to bring you an electric line, has something other than your best interests at heart.

I’m not far enough along to be sure of this, but after a little peeking ahead, it’s beginning to look like this is how Caro’s going to treat the Great Society also — hundreds of pages on the details of the legislation, hundreds more on the good it (allegedly) did, and not a single inquiry into how much more good somebody could have done with expenditures of that magnitude.

And then there’s this passage, which I feel compelled to assure you I am not making up:

Many of the laws he rushed through Congress in such unprecedented numbers …were inadequately thought through, flawed, contradictory, not infrequently exacerbating, at immense cost, the evils they were intended to correct. But his very declaration of that War [on Poverty] was a reminder — as was his overall concept of a “Great Society” — of government’s responsibility to strike blows against ignorance and disease and want….In storming, on behalf of those laws, long-held bastions of congressional hostility to social-welfare programs, he used the power of the presidency for purposes as noble as any in American history.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that was Robert Caro telling you that rushing willy-nilly into poorly conceived policies that do more harm than good is as noble as it gets in the world of presidential power.

And they say that economists wear blinders!

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35 Responses to “Power Transmission”


  1. 1 1 prior probability

    Perhaps a new maxim is in order: “nobility” is the last refuge of do-gooder nudgers

  2. 2 2 Advo

    The amount of money the US and Europe spend on propping up rural structures does not bear thinking about. How deeply this derangement is embedded in the national psyche of the US is demonstrated conclusively by the fact that the Tea Party Congress – which has no problems with starving widows and orphans just to save a few million – cannot get itself to cut agricultural subsidies.

  3. 3 3 Harold

    I was wondering what the cost of the electricity generated was. Quick look on Wikipedia suggests hyro is among the cheapest electricity. However, most of the cost is up-front capital cost. Since the dam is still generating power 80 years later, is this longevity included in the calculation of generating costs? Structures like this may not be “economic” if you take a lifetime of 25 years, but if you pay it back over a century, then it gets even cheaper.

  4. 4 4 CC

    I think you meant “raises the question”.
    http://begthequestion.info/

  5. 5 5 Steve Landsburg

    CC: My whole life, I have corrected people for this usage just as you’re doing now. Very recently, someone convinced me that I’ve been wrong all along, and I embedded my implicit concession in this post. Now you’ve got me at least unsure again. So I’m changing “beg” back to “raise”. Thanks.

  6. 6 6 Harold

    Interesting linguistic point – when does usage become so common that what was once an error becomes normal language. With split infinitives we are probably fine with accepting them, because meaning is not really compromised. With the begging the question case, I agree that it is worth preserving the correct meaning as it conveys a particular logical fallacy. Maybe it is too late and the battle is already lost.

    The question raised here cannot be answered by the effect on the 2892 farms only, but the effect on whatever is there now.

    Almost certainly, the investment in the power transmission lines would be a bad one if it only fed the farms concerned. But maybe by now there are some thriving towns, watered by the resevoir. Maybe not, I don’t know. I get the point that Caro’s analysis does not even consider this, but counts the benefits without counting the opportunity cost. With this sort of intrastructure investment, the benefits are difficult to estimate until they are in place.

  7. 7 7 CC

    Harold wrote: With the begging the question case, I agree that it is worth preserving the correct meaning as it conveys a particular logical fallacy.

    Yup, I agree with the jist of what you’re saying here. Like you, I understand that language changes, but the BTQ thing bugs me because: 1) The new “meaning” was born out of ignorance and people trying to sound smart, and 2) Logicians really need that phrase! Otherwise, they’ll need to think of a new phrase that means “begging the question.”

    And I’ll have to throw away my “beg the question mug”!

    SL, thanks for tolerating the brief thread hijack.

  8. 8 8 Wonks Anonymous

    People should simply stop using the phrase “beg the question”. Use either “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question” depending on which of the two uses you want.

  9. 9 9 Bob Thompson

    ‘Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that was Robert Caro telling you that rushing willy-nilly into poorly conceived policies that do more harm than good is as noble as it gets in the world of presidential power.’

    The overt expression of this notion as ‘noble’ by one who is among the resident educated elite explains a lot. It may also reveal some underlying reason for why many, if not most, of these same thinking people are unable to distinguish between ‘race’ and ‘culture’ as the cause of many social conflicts in the U.S.

  10. 10 10 Ken B

    Advo:”the Tea Party Congress – which has no problems with starving widows and orphans just to save a few million ”

    Sigh. Advo, you really need to read more carefully. The offical Tea Party policy is starving cripples and orphans. Widows are to be sold into slavery.

  11. 11 11 Ken B

    Hmmm. Let’s look at this wording carefully, my bold:
    “In storming, on behalf of those laws, long-held bastions of congressional hostility to social-welfare programs, he used the power of the presidency for purposes as noble as any in American history. ”

    I’m not sure Steve’s characterization is quite accurate. Caro is saying the purpose — the stated goals of the War on Poverty and more broadly implementing a purportedly caring “social-welfare” state — was noble. Steve is focusing on the crappy execution (“inconsistent”) and I suppose on the underhanded methods (its LBJ!). I’m note sure these are that inconsistent. Richard Dawkins has a noble purpose in mind fighting creationism, but if he did it with shoddy books and lies I could still deprecate him and his works but laud his goals. John Brown also comes to mind.

  12. 12 12 Bob Thompson

    ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’

    Yes, one can laud the goals of such but wasteful spending of others’ money (and when bad results, just spend some more because we didn’t have enough funding) is not laudable.

    I prefer to take Steve’s discourse as pointing to the need for a complete thought in lieu of a partial.

  13. 13 13 Scott H.

    @Ken B. #11

    Hmmm… Bold vs Bold it is!

    were inadequately thought through, flawed, contradictory, not infrequently exacerbating, at immense cost, the evils they were intended to correct. But his very declaration of that War [on Poverty] was a reminder — as was his overall concept of a “Great Society” — of government’s responsibility to strike blows against ignorance and disease and want…

    LBJ and the Congress were striking blows against ignorance here?

    P.S. I sure hope this environment supports html tags or my bold bold statement is going to look pretty feeble.

  14. 14 14 Jay

    @ Advo 2

    By congress I’m sure you mean House. The 2013 farm bill in the Senate had a bipartisan amendment to reduce subsidies but it was rejected in the House by a pretty narrow vote with the “Tea Party”, as you put it, on the losing side. I’m not sure what you mean by them stepping on widows and starving orphans, the same House also rejected a cut to SNAP funding which passed the Senate. So they can’t be both stepping on the necks of widows and failing to cut farm subsidies, pick one or the other.

  15. 15 15 Will A

    @ Ken B.

    Given the fact that many people in the tea party want to keep the government out of Medicare and Social Security, I would say that the tea party does care about widows and wants them to be taken care of.

  16. 16 16 Will A

    @ Jay 14

    You seem to use the following to make the point about the House of Representatives caring about those who receive SNAP benefits:

    “the same House also rejected a cut to SNAP funding which passed the Senate.”

    This was rejected by the house because it didn’t cut SNAP enough.

    If you are holding up the senate’s attempt to cut SNAP as an example of the senate not caring about widows, you can’t hold up the house as caring about widows because they want to cut SNAP more and be an honest person.

  17. 17 17 nobody.really

    The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a farm bill reduced funding for SNAP a/k/a food stamps by $400 million annually, but trimmed even more from crop subsidies

    The Republican-controlled House tried to pass a bill funding ag subsidies and cutting $2 billion from SNAP, but couldn’t muster enough votes from either Democrats or Republicans. So the Republicans then passed a farm bill that INCREASED crop subsidies and ELIMINATED food stamps. Confronted with a firestorm of protests that Republicans are only concerned about the rich, the House leadership then announced that they weren’t killing food stamps, only referring the matter to a separate bill. But, notwithstanding the fact that the rules of the House give the majority party absolute control over the legislation they pass, the House has not actually produced this separate bill.

    What does “the Tea Party” think about this? Hard to say, since they have no specific spokesman. But Broomberg News thinks they oppose food stamp funding. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-16/tea-party-may-lose-food-stamp-fight.html

  18. 18 18 Jimbino

    Socialists have always measured the success of a policy by how much money was spent, not on an objective measure of success, like “medicaid spent $billions last year to provide health care to the needy” and “Pell grants have helped to send millions of poor students to college.”

  19. 19 19 Roger

    That quote sums up the liberal mentality. Claim to have good intentions as you create big govt programs to make the problems worse.

  20. 20 20 Ted Levy

    “rushing willy-nilly into poorly conceived policies that do more harm than good is as noble as it gets in the world of presidential power.”

    Well, Steve, if that is an accurate summary of Caro’s position, who could disagree?

  21. 21 21 Alex

    If you “beg the question” folks keep resisting linguistic modernity, my head is literally going to explode.

  22. 22 22 Jay

    @ Will A 16

    I agree, both cutting SNAP and increasing ag subsidies is obvious pandering and indefensible. I was merely commenting on Advo’s position that the “tea party congress” was stepping on orphan’s when the Senate has been the only house to actually cut SNAP funding, independent of what the sides say or want.

  23. 23 23 iceman

    @Ken B #11 – fair enough, however it seems the question is/remains what exactly constitutes “nobility” here; I’ll define that as striving for some ideal against opposition. So is the supposition that some people are truly against combating “ignorance, disease and want”? Or is it the means and efficacy thereof that are at issue? Caro’s position seems to be that the very act of choosing govt (always properly read: coercion) as the means is itself noble, in which case he does lay his liberal affections squarely on the table, which is fine for what it is, but that would hardly seem to constitute some blanket claim to nobility. Otherwise, all we are left is to look at the nobility of the *process*, which Caro himself describes as anything but.

    To those who would respond that the selection of govt as the means is noble simply because the alternative of calling people to voluntary action (a valid course which all else equal would seem preferable — or more ‘noble’ if you like — due to the lack of coercion involved) will (has) not work(ed), the actual efficacy of the results seems particularly relevant here. Some problems are intractable for a reason, and facing that head on is a call to wisdom (which is kinda noble itself).

  24. 24 24 Don Kenner

    The main thing I take away from Caro’s ridiculous “life lesson” is that stealing money from productive people to spend on others is a basic good because of the sacrifice involved, INDEPENDENT of whether the program is a success, a failure, or makes the problem worse. This is the way thieves and thugs in government operate. There is no convincing the true believers that such a course of action may be folly, or even immoral; to them it is a just course even if it lays waste to the very people it was supposed to save. They’ll just respond with some nonsense about us having a “tea party congress” (if only!) and “starving widows and orphans.”

    Ironically, LBJ would use this same “street-smart” political sense to make war in Vietnam, but that government project would be met with less applause. The two, however, are related.

  25. 25 25 Eric Falkenstein

    Isn’t this Kantian ethics in practice? Intentions are all that counts, and superficially altruistic ones are thus beyond reproach?

  26. 26 26 Will A

    @ Jay #22:

    My point is that you are making a dishonest argument. The Ryan budget cuts SNAP by $ 185 over 10 year:
    http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3923

    If you want to make the argument that SNAP hurts the poor by fostering mooching, then you can say that the Ryan Budget helps the poor more than the Senate since it cuts SNAP by more.

    So I would say that Advo was making an honest argument and you are making a dishonest argument.

  27. 27 27 Michael Stack

    My main take-away from the Caro books on Johnson was that Lyndon Johnson was a pure psychopath. Some of the descriptions of Johnson’s behavior in “The Path to Power” were revolting.

  28. 28 28 Jay

    @ Will A 26

    I was not aware of the SNAP cuts in the Ryan budget, for that I apologize, but I still don’t see how both houses of congress passing a SNAP cut makes Advo’s comments any more honest when it isn’t the Tea Party doing it, its the entire congress. I would also argue that hyperbole such as “starving widows and orphans” is never an honest argument about the facts.

  29. 29 29 Jay

    @ Will A 26

    Also, calling Ryan’s budget a “cut” to SNAP in the same manner as the farm bill is a bit dishonest as well. Ryan proposed changing the program to block grants that are indexed differently which results in a lowering of the rate of growth, not an actual cut to the baseline funding as the farm bill does (as I understand it).

  30. 30 30 Will A

    @ Jay #28:

    Do you believe that the Senate wants to cut SNAP by more than the tea party?

  31. 31 31 Steve Landsburg

    Michael Stack:

    My main take-away from the Caro books on Johnson was that Lyndon Johnson was a pure psychopath.

    Mine too.

  32. 32 32 Jay

    @ Will A 30

    Not a chance, but nor do I equate cutting SNAP (baseline or rate of growth) as willingly starving widows and orphans. Its hard to nail down a single tea party voice, but I’m willing to guess the median position on SNAP is to get it off the federal budget altogether and leave it to states to decide how to implement such programs (i.e. CalFresh), and I think the Ryan budget is a step towards this.

  33. 33 33 Will A

    @ Jay #32:

    You hold up the Senate passing cuts to SNAP that the house rejected as as an example of the Senate disliking the poor more.

    And yet you believe that the house wants to cut SNAP by more than the senate. I would call this being dishonest.

    On the flip side, #32 seems to be an honest argument (an argument based on what you actually believe).

  34. 34 34 iceman

    Steve – I can’t help wondering with all the interesting things on your reading lists what leads you to plod through this? Sheer morbid curiosity about such hyper-powerlust (or how the author will spin such)? There must be some entertainment value in it.

  35. 35 35 Jay

    @ Will A 33

    I never said the Senate dislikes the poor more or that anyone does, just that its hard to make the argument (honestly) that the “tea party congress” wants to uniquely starve women and orphans (presumably by cutting SNAP funding) when the Senate also passed a cut.

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