Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Debate

On Wednesday, April 14, the Antiplanner had the honor of debating James Kunstler, the famous author of Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency. The students at Brown University who set this up chose the topic, “Building America: Who Should Control Urban Growth–Planners or Markets?

I’ve never met Kunstler before, and I was a bit nervous since he hasn’t exactly been friendly on his blog. But he turned out to be very warm and congenial. We share many recreation interests and I am sure we could be friends if we didn’t live on opposite sides of the country, which (despite our mobility) might be a bigger barrier than being on opposite sides of the political debate.

Kunstler and I were each asked to speak for 25 minutes, after which we were invited to ask each other one question. Then the floor was opened to questions from the audience, mostly (I was told) students in political science, environmental studies, urban planning, and economics.

Before we began, I mentioned to one of the students that we probably weren’t really going to debate the issues; instead, we would be presenting alternative approaches to the issues. Kunstler has a right-brained approach, based on intuition and emotion, while I have a left-brained approach, based on logic and numbers. This prediction turned out to be correct.

Kunstler’s presentation made a very simple argument: oil production is about to peak, after which prices will steeply rise. This will render automobiles too expensive to drive (because no other fuel will do) and make the suburbs obsolete. He didn’t provide any evidence for any of these assertions, instead relying on hyperbole and a PowerPoint show that consisted mostly of cartoonish illustrations of the apocalypse.

My presentation (PDF version; both versions are about 30 megabytes) tried to make four points: automobiles and low-density development produce far more benefits than costs; those costs have been greatly exaggerated by auto opponents; the “smart-growth” cure is worse than the disease of urban sprawl; and the real solution to the problems that do exist is to create systems that give people freedom to choose how they want to live and travel but make sure they pay the full costs of those choices.

After my presentation, Kunstler asked me who I thought paid for highways: the government or the private sector. I responded that 80 percent of the cost of roads was covered by some form of user fee. That was a slight dodge, but I have long argued that funding government programs out of user fees and not taxes is a good way of minimizing government waste. Privatization might sometimes be better but is often less politically likely.

My question for him was why he thought the government action was needed to deal with peak oil instead of simply relying on the market. Many people in the audience appeared stunned by his rambling answer that seemed to indicate he was not arguing for any government action at all; he just wanted people to know “the reality of peak oil.” This made me wonder why, if he didn’t support government action, he accepted the invitation to the debate.

During the question period, a couple of students pressed Kunstler on this point. In an obvious reference to my presentation, he said tht people lie with statistics and that “econometricians are held in lower repute than any other profession today except for politicians and bankers.” I guess I should be flattered to be called an econometrician, as my analyses are nowhere near sophisticated enough to be considered econometrics (which makes heavy use of calculus and regression analysis), being based instead almost entirely on simple arithmetic. But it is possible that Kunstler doesn’t know what econometrics is.

After the debate, one of the right-brained members of the audience asked me for the source of my claim that Americans spend only about 22 cents per passenger mile driving cars when the “American Anthropological Association” (yes, that’s what she said) had calculated it to be 55 cents a mile. I explained that one difference was that my numbers were per passenger mile while the American Automobile Association numbers were per vehicle mile; and that the other difference is that the Triple-A numbers were hypothetical while mine were based on actual expenditures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis divided by actual passenger miles from the Federal Highway Administration.

Specifically, I added, the AAA numbers assumed that people would buy new cars, pay full finance charges, and then replace the car after 5 years, when in fact we drive our cars for an average of 18 years. “No we don’t,” she said, “We only drive our cars a few years, and then they trickle down to low-income people.” I didn’t bother telling her that I drive a car that I bought new (with cash, so no finance charges) in 1986. Instead, I tried to say that expenditures by low-income people had to be included in the averages. But she interrupted me, saying, “There isn’t any point in listening to you; I’m not going to be persuaded no matter what you say.”

Sometimes I secretly wish we had a law requiring people to be adept with simple arithmetic before they are allowed to participate in public policy debate. If you think people are going to lie to you with statistics, the appropriate recourse is to arm yourself with statistical tools so you can detect and correct their lies. But for some people it is just easier to ignore all data and fall back on their hunches and preconceived notions. That’s a dangerous attitude that makes you vulnerable to rhetoricians who will speak to your emotions rather than to reality.

But I suppose that’s just a left-brained view.


59 thoughts on “Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Debate

  1. T. Caine

    Ron –

    I think I said I am not for forcing people to do anything, but educating people about opportunities. There are already numerous places in America that go through seasons of intense drought annually and the problem will only persist as we continue to over-tap aquifers or as communities continue to expand. Buildings use 15-17% of our nation’s water (around 70 billion gallons per day). The people who have to conserve in order to survive will make the appropriate choice and those who see water usage as a “triviality” should find the act of conserving to be rather easy.

    It’s also not just about drinking water. Our country uses 8 quads of energy in our water supply chain (4 purifying water to be potable, and 4 to clean sewage before release). I believe that is somewhere in the range of 1.37 trillion kWh, so reducing that by 10-20% is far from insignificant. For communities that do not have sewage treatment, it results in less effluent being dripped into the environment–most often our natural waterways. Like the fact that you cannot swim in the Ohio river because water concentration can climb as high as 50% sewage effluent. Things like that are just disgusting. Given that landscape, yes I think that people should consider undergoing the near-effortless switch to save water.

  2. Ron H.

    T. Caine,

    Thank you for your informative response to my comment.

    I do believe conservation is a good thing, and didn’t mean to imply otherwise. However, my preferred method of achieving reduced usage would be based on the cost to users. A “user fee” method, so to speak.

    Your specific solutions, low-flow shower heads and dual flush toilets, might be preferred by some people, others might find less frequent bathing a good way to conserve water. I would allow water users to decide for themselves how to save money on their water bill.

    In my area I receive a bill for water and sewer which I believe covers all associated costs of water, including acquisition and later treatment of sewage. Any increase in costs should be reflected in my bill, and I will have incentive to find ways to lower my bill. Those might well include your recommendations.

    My experience with devices that reduce water usage is mixed. Low-flow shower heads have been available for a long time. I installed them in the 1970s because it was politically correct. I remember people bragging about how little water they could use to take a shower. It became absurd.

    I eventually found that I wasn’t turning the shower head off and on because I enjoyed the full flow, and showering with minimum water seemed more like a chore. Apparently the satisfaction of saving water was less important to me than the psychic profit of taking a continuous shower.

    I have no experience with dual flow toilets, but my experience with low-flow models is mostly bad. I suffered more frequent clogging with low-flow models, so I found myself flushing twice. The whole purpose had been defeated.

  3. T. Caine


    Absolutely. I think allowing the market to influence conservation can be efficient and certainly self-explanatory. I am all for that. I guess my only current qualm with that method is that, in my opinion, the evidence is showing that the market is not really doing its job right now (in some places more than others.) This could be for a number of reasons: we are not properly allocating user fees to the full realm of costs required to keep the system running well or those shortcomings are not properly matched at the municipal level; we are not including costs to fix damage already done; we are not putting an accurate price on repairing or preventing the damage/stress we continue to create. I think two and three are pretty common. Perhaps if we really quantified the costs of a better system, prices would rise and people would adjust accordingly. Granted, we run into that subjective area again when we try to price things like that.

    I also agree that people are certainly not going to subscribe to products that don’t work–nor should they have to. I think one of sustainability’s larger enemies is companies trying to bring a product to market that isn’t ready. All that does is tick people off. At the same time, there are a lot of systems out there that have come a long way. Low flow lav & kitchen faucets, dual flush toilets, more efficient appliances (especially washing machines), rain water capture, greywater filtration. They will only continue to improve.

  4. Ron H.

    T. Caine

    You said: >“I think one of sustainability’s larger enemies is companies trying to bring a product to market that isn’t ready. All that does is tick people off.”

    This is likely a result of distortions in the market caused by government pressure/tax breaks/subsidies to produce a product that meets a perceived social need, combined with tax breaks/subsidies used to induce people to buy something they might not feel a need for otherwise.

    Government involvement is most often a result of lobbying efforts by environmental groups and by large corporations who are in fact rent seeking or trying to eliminate competition.

    A good example of this is GE, a company with a large investment in CFL technology . They have successfully lobbied for strict standards for light bulb energy use, and as luck would have it, they have the only product on the market that meets those standards. Standard incandescent bulbs will soon be off the market.

    I have replaced all the light bulbs in my house with CFLs because they were originally very inexpensive because my neighbors, as taxpayers, helped pay for them . I was looking forward to their lasting a long time, and to saving money on my electric bill, as well as doing my part to save the planet. I haven’t realized any of these benefits as far as I can see. Any imperceptible difference in my electric bill is lost in the noise of “natural variability”. The CFLs don’t acquire full brightness for several minutes when first switched on, and seem to burn out at about the same rate incandescents did, except now I have a potential mercury hazard to deal with. I am collecting those that burn out in a box, and haven’t yet tried to dispose of them at my local hazardous waste collectinn facility, but you can bet your a** that if it’s too complicated, I will send them to the landfill. I could go on, but Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said it better than I ever could. Needless to say, I will be stocking up on incandescents before they become unavailable.

    >“At the same time, there are a lot of systems out there that have come a long way. Low flow lav & kitchen faucets, dual flush toilets, more efficient appliances (especially washing machines), rain water capture, greywater filtration.”

    Again, subsidies and tax incentives make these more attractive than they would be otherwise. If the only attraction was the hope of future savings on energy use, few would buy the higher priced items.

    >” They will only continue to improve.”

    We can hope so, but if subsidies are continually needed, I question the benefit. At some level of improved efficiency, the cost/benefit ceases to make sense.

  5. prk166

    “Locomotive power for freight is already very efficient, which is a big chunk of why he bought it. And electrification 1. is a huge capital expense that would need to be undertaken by private companies (unless Congress grants another subsidy to railroads on the order of every other section) and 2. at the moment would require coal power, and soon polluters will be paying for their C emissions, Hg deposition, etc.” – Dan

    There are some electric freight railroads in the US. Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad, Deseret Western Railway and some others. They were built more recently and built to haul coal to power plants. Maybe the difference for them was a better rate on electricity? I don’t know.

    Indirectly, yes, BNSF was purchased because the locomotive’s are efficient. But most of the efficiencies do not come from how diesel electric locomotives consume diesel fuel to run their generators to give those axles the pulling power they need to do the job. It comes from efficiencies in day to day operations. It’s how quickly they add engines to a train and take them off a train to do things like get them over the Palmer Divide. It’s the ability to run 2 man crews, remote operations in yards, software and reporting to help better utilize cars and building and breaking down trains… that is the trains that go through that process. But probably the biggest 2 things are intermodal and unit trains. Unit trains mean building an entire train at it’s source, for example a coal mine, and running it more or less nonstop straight to it’s destination. It’s a HUGE gain in efficiency. The same with intermodal. IIRC intermodal is BNSF’s biggest division and the same with UP’s. It means those contains get unloaded in LA and hotshoted (if that’s the right term) to KC or Chicago or Atlanta or Boston. Then they’re unloaded from the train and dropped onto semi trailers and delivered directly. No need for the train to be broken up in a hump yard and run 7 cars up this branch line and a car or two down some spur. It’s the railroad equivalent of wam, bam, thank you maam (btw, IIRC, the semi truck portion isn’t used in those sexy numbers CSX likes to spout on their ads on public radio).

    Maybe as these low margin operations continue to look for ways to squeeze out some operations electrification will come into play. But it’s a lot of money to sink in up ffront for marginal improvements in operational costs. And at that it does create some minor problems. For example, those unit trains are going to need to swap out electric locomotives for diesels at some point on their route where they hit a non-electrified line. Not a big deal but it reduces efficiency.

    It does remind me though of something I’ve always wondered, how do the railroads get all of this electricity? I’m not thinking about coal vs natural gas vs nuclear. But how do they actually buy it? Can they enter into long term contracts and have Duke and Xcel and whomever put in bids? Or do they technically have to buy it in the locale that it’s consumed? I’m curious since it could be another advantage of diesel. They’ve got several different suppliers all supplying them and all bidding against each other.

    Overall though Berkshire Hathaway bought BNSF to make money. Not trying to split hairs to show off. Just trying to clarify since we tend to sometimes get too caught up in the little details and forget about the big picture. A lot of interesting comments here that are good food for thought.

  6. Dan

    That’s funny, when I saw Buffett in a long interview on Charlie Rose just after the purchase, he talked about how many miles on a gallon being the main reason for the purchase. He thinks he sees coming price increases and wants to capture efficiencies.


  7. chipdouglas

    T. Caine: well-argued. I feel like Ron H. and I made my point for me pretty well, but I appreciate the reason and civility.

    Frank: somebody’s gotta make the easy jokes, right? If you read my OP, you’ll see that I am aware of the MBTI’s limitations, which is why I do not claim it to be a hard science. It has all the limitations, and more, of a social science. It is useful to the degree that it can be reverse-engineered and used to explain present behavior and predict future behavior. Frankly, if it were totally baseless I would not have been able to accurately type 11 consecutive individuals. Statistically, the chances of that are much less than 1%. Personally, it has helped me to deal with Feelers in my life, for example, to the extent that I now know they will sooner respond to emotionally arresting appeals than to data sets, like many Thinkers. That’s already been an enormous time-saver.

  8. game_sink

    Mr. O’Toole,

    I was excited to watch this event on Brown’s website (http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Political_Theory_Project/janus/events/lectures/building_america_who_should_control_urban_growth). Kunstler was a bit miscast as a defender of planners; anyone who has followed his work knows that he is often quite critical of them. However, in a way I wish this was a real debate, because as someone quite familiar with Kunstler’s work and ways of thinking, I know there were a great many opportunities for him to have challenged your assertions. As someone who lived in Portland for 30 years (until recently), I would like to point out that a great majority of the traffic calming measures the city has undertaken were not the ideas of planners, but at the request of local residents who don’t like automobiles speeding down their streets. I’d note that the reason property is so expensive there not because of the urban growth boundary (this has been shown, as you like to say, in studies), but because it is such a desirable place to live (in part due to intentional municipal interventions). (By the way, the properties in your beloved Sienna Plantation are just as expensive as those in Portland.) I think your promotion of big box retail is wrongheaded for a number of reasons. You present numerous straw men arguments, beginning with claiming that the only reason smart growth defenders hate sprawl is that it impedes on open space. I could go on and on, but I’d be here all afternoon.

    Kunstler’s question to you, while prickly (as is generally his style in that sort of format), was a good one — and one that I don’t think you fully answered (i.e. what would actually happen to our freeways if the subsidies were removed?). However, if I could have posed one question to you, it would be this:

    In your presentation, you show photos of two places where you like to spend your time. The first place was Crater Lake, a national park in which development of all kinds is prohibited by federal law. The second place was the Mt. Jefferson wilderness, which is also protected from development by federal law (and which you even claim to have fought to “protect”). Yet you claim time and again that people should be able to live wherever they want; that government should not restrict the realm of living situations that people can choose. Would you therefore support completely opening up Crater Lake National Park and the Mt. Jefferson wilderness, two of your favorite places, to private ownership–and potentially, as a consequence, to great quantities of landscape-spoiling development? Why or why not?

    Any answer would be appreciated.

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