The Stupidity Factor

Joseph W.H. Lough

Several decades have passed since “human capital” passed into the economic lexicon and into the models economists use to measure economic growth. My students will be familiar with “human capital” as a factor in long-term economic growth and in R Lucas’ version of the convergence hypothesis. According to that hypothesis, although several obstacles stand in the way of capital flowing “down hill” so to speak to countries that, all other things being equal, should attract capital, over time these obstacles have gradually been overcome so that eventually we can observe a convergence among all the economies of the world.

Convergence, in this instance, entails the removal of legal, political, administrative, regulatory, cultural, intellectual and social barriers so that capital, labor, and knowledge are free to migrate wherever in the world they will achieve their highest returns. Thus, for example, Lucas points to the increasing rationalization and internationalization of laws and regulations governing commerce since the sixteenth century such that in nations where once oligarchies enjoyed special privileges and kick-backs whose tendency was to reduce economic efficiency, increasingly these oligarchies and private laws are being replaced by a broad middle class whose members are all subject to the same transparent laws, regulations, and procedures that apply elsewhere in the world.

Up to a point, convergence increases the rate of economic growth globally. Still, in the long run, even global growth begins to flatten under the pressures of diminishing returns to both L (labor) and K (capital), while A (multi-factor productivity) has the opposite effect of steepening the slope. And, yet, even at tn the curve, though flattened, is still increasing in aggregate. And this means that the global economy is still growing.

Lucas plots the rate of global economic growth out to 2100, with a peak in the rate of growth in roughly 1972 and then a declining and flattening rate from there on out. This makes sense because as more of the world’s economies come into competition with one another, it is normal that this competition will exercise downward pressure in aggregate not on economic growth, but on the rate of growth.

Now, clearly, since the planet and its resources are not unlimited, if universalized by convergence endless economic growth could only result in collapse of all biological systems.

Which brings us to the stupidity factor, Sx, where S measures a quantum of stupidity and x is an exponent less than 1 that reduces the effectiveness of human capital.

I often find myself thrown back upon the stupidity factor as a significant variable for economic modeling whenever I learn of another instance where a combination of stupidity and meanness lead to undesirable outcomes. Such was the case this morning when I heard the NPR report “A Hot Topic: Climate Change Coming To Classrooms” ( Of course, it is good that public schools are finally taking up the science of climate change. But, as they do so, not surprisingly, the climate change denial industry is swinging into full operation.

According to the NPR report, “last month, Colorado became the 18th state in recent years — including seven this year — to consider an ‘Academic Freedom Act.’” “Academic freedom,” in this instance, does not entail the freedom of scientists to submit their research findings to peer-reviewed scientific journals, or the freedom of other scientists to disagree over how to interpret the results published in such journals. In this instance, “academic freedom” entails the right of public school teachers to peddle under the name of “science” views espoused by no scientist in no peer-reviewed science journal. As Joshua Younkin of the Discovery Institute explained, “It just gives teachers a simple right . . . to know that they can teach both sides of a controversy objectively, and in a scientific manner, in order to induce critical thinking in their student body.”

Thus the stupidity factor.

Happily, where I live in Berkeley and in the San Francisco Bay Area more generally, Ph.Ds in science are a dime a dozen. And, not surprisingly, there are no “Academic Freedom Acts” anywhere on the horizon. But, this is not to say that Academic Freedom Acts play no role in Berkeley or in the San Francisco Bay Area more generally. And here is why: the horizon of my community and region is connected to and dependent upon the horizons of regions and communities all across the US where one would be hard-pressed to find a preponderance of voters with an Associates Degree from something other than a professional school, much less a Ph.D. in science. And since they are making the laws and setting the standards in these other regions and communities, it is not unlikely that their children will be learning “science” from teachers who are exercising their “simple right . . . to know that they can teach both sides of a controversy” such as climate change “objectively, and in a scientific manner, in order to induce critical thinking in their student body.” And this means that my horizon is likely to be increasingly cluttered with the CO2 produced by manufacturers who have the good fortune to be located in regions and communities whose citizens have no meaningful understanding of climate science.

But, clearly, more is entailed here than levels of educational achievement or concentrations of individuals with advanced degrees in the sciences. As you move east from where I live – and one does not have to travel very far – you will witness a rapid transformation in the sources from which individuals acquire what they believe to be reliable information; from NPR, PBS, BBC, and the New York Times where I live to FOX, CBN, TBS, TNT, and any number of Murdock-owned entertainment delivery systems that are still legally permitted to describe what they deliver as “news” (although legally they are not news, but entertainment; see NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS OF TAMPA, INC., d/b/a WTVT-TV v JANE AKRE Florida Dist. Court 2nd Feb. 14. 2003 Case No. 2D01-529).

It would be easy to credit the relative success that climate science has enjoyed in Berkeley and the Bay Area to the wealth of its residents. And, yet, there are plenty of wealthy communities and wealthy individuals that are on the forefront of climate change denial.

Finally, it strikes me that there is something of a network effect at work in Berkeley and the Bay Area; just as there is a network effect in areas that deny climate science. That is to say, while I know no one – literally no one – who denies the validity of climate science, I am led to believe that there exist large swaths of territory in the US where I could wander for days and find no one who believed in climate science, no radio or television news source teaching climate science, and no public school teacher teaching climate science.

All of this, I think, is fairly straightforward and non-controversial.

My question is whether what I am calling the stupidity factor could be placed into an economic model such that by adequately and accurately weighting, e.g., the mean educational levels and concentration of advanced science degrees, the sources of political campaign finances that end up in the campaigns of successful candidates, the sources of political advertising, the viewership of various media outlets, the public expenditures on public education, the density of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, the relative ethnic and linguistic diversity, and the concentration of public institutions of higher learning, one could get an accurate read not only of where any given population will stand on climate change legislation, but, more importantly, how much of various kinds of resources advocates of climate science would have to devote to all of these factors in these regions over time so as to constitute a population that believes in climate change science.

Where is the tipping point in education, money, information, diversity, security, and so on that brings a community to stop behaving stupidly? Or, in the alternative, at what point have the the levels of these factors dipped so low so as to produce a quantum of stupidity likely to deny climate change science?

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