Dumb Question: Is Harry Potter Really Less Important Than Global Warming?

This week’s dumb question was put to J. Bradford DeLong, who is professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a blogger , and a former Clinton administration Treasury official. 

The Grid: Can I ask you a dumb question? 

Last week you wrote a blog post  that asks why people seem to care more about “imaginary friends” like Harry Potter than about real stories from the past or even projections of the future -- whether it holds global wealth or global warming. Do you mind explaining a bit more why imaginary friends like Harry Potter are less important than imaginary issues like global warming? 

Brad DeLong: Hundreds of millions of people are greatly concerned with Harry Potter, as if he’s one of the most important things in life; and what happens to him is what they desperately want to know. Why are they paying attention to the imaginary Harry Potter, instead of the man behind the curtain -- global warming? 

There are two billion peasants living in the great river valleys of Asia. Global warming either means more or less snow on the Tibetan plateau, which melts either faster or slower, which means either drought or flood or both. And none of these two billion people have enough resources to leave their land and move to the cities, because the land is what they’ve got. 

It’s not just the “eight million stories in the naked city.” It’s two billion. Why, if we can organize ourselves to have Harry Potter festivals, can’t we organize ourselves to deal with this? The right answer is that we are jumped up East African plains apes, who’ve barely managed to evolve an inferior and inadequate kind of intelligence. This is yet more evidence of how inferior and inadequate our intelligence is. 

TG: Oh, I see. Good, so the best we can actually manage are dumb questions. That makes me feel better.

Can I ask you another dumb question? Did you ever notice how Ben Bernanke and other Federal Reserve chairmen use the word “sustainability” a lot when they’re talking about national debt and income? And then companies like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and others also use the word “sustainability” when they’re talking about saving the fish, or wasting less stuff, or treating people nice? Can you define “sustainability” in a way that includes both usages? 

DeLong: We killed the North Atlantic codfish. We absolutely killed it stone dead. Something that had been a staple source of protein for peoples of the North Atlantic for at least 1,000 years is now completely gone. And there’s a high probability that it’s not coming back, or at least not coming back until we can figure out some way to reverse evolve whatever fish have now taken their place -- whatever disgusting, ugly fish probably, worse tasting than bluefish, now occupy the cod niche in the North Atlantic food web. 

Don’t do things that mean tomorrow, you don’t have the options that you had today. You want sustainable policies, because they’re ones that preserve and actually enlarge your options to keep things the way they are -- and even to do something better in the future.

Analyses and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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