APS News

November 2011 (Volume 20, Number 10)

Letters to the Editor

Political Left-Right Asymmetry Explained

Like F. Smith and H. D. Greyber (August/September Letters) I was interested in Michael Lubell’s July column, which reported on the Pew Foundation’s poll that found that 55% of scientists considered themselves Democrats while only 6% were Republicans –leaving 39% on the fence.

Long ago at the University of Wisconsin I noticed faculty political differences during a period of political turmoil. Using the familiar, if simplistic, left-right scale, I found the humanity and social science faculty at the left, the science faculty center-left, the engineers center-right and the Ag-school faculty at the right.

Those who dealt with the spiritual were on the left, those who worked with the material were on the right.

In the interests of full disclosure, this physicist is registered on the voter’s roll in Connecticut as an Independent–thus one of the 39% on the fence.

Robert K. Adair
Hamden, Connecticut

Consumers Have a Right to the Incandescent Bulb

Physicist-turned-Congressman Rush Holt supports legislation banning conventional incandescent light bulbs (Back Page, August/September APS News). His statements about the legislation are misleading. Worse yet, his support of the ban embodies an elitism that supplants people's right to choose with authoritarian dictates of a technocratic ruling class.

To the Wall Street Journal's claim that “Washington will effectively ban the sale of conventional incandescent light bulbs,” Holt replies, “This was, of course, untrue. No type of light bulb was banned.” Sure, the legislation does not ban all incandescents, but it does ban conventional ones, as the Journal claims. The legislation will “make current 100-watt bulbs obsolete and such bulbs will “disappear from store shelves,” reports the New York Times.

To justify the ban, Holt narrowly defines efficiency to mean only energy efficiency. But the most “efficient” light bulb best achieves the user’s purpose. Energy efficiency is important, but so are an appealing color spectrum, quickly reaching full brightness, low-cost dimming, and tolerance to vibration and heat.

The Congressman also decries proposals to repeal the bulb ban, as it could undermine Congress’s “tradition of supporting innovation.” But when companies spend money to satisfy government demands, they invest less on innovation to satisfy perceived customer demand.

Businesses in relatively free markets innovate just fine. Consumer electronics is an obvious example, but product packaging has also become more efficient. Soda cans use less metal, while bottled beverage manufacturers advertise bottles using less plastic or petroleum-free plant-based plastics.

Meanwhile, the bulb ban exemplifies “innovative” ways for bulb makers to increase profits through political pull. Conventional bulbs are a “ubiquitous commodity” with a “negligible” profit margin, the New York Times Magazine recently noted. “No amount of subsidy or ‛green’ branding has managed to woo consumers away from Edison’s bulb.” So the lighting industry endorsed new efficiency standards that force consumers to buy more expensive products.

“We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money,” quipped Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics. Even if this is true, wasting one's own money is every person’s right. Moreover, if a consumer has good reasons to prefer conventional incandescent bulbs, buying them is not wasteful. What’s wasteful is being forced to buy less desirable alternatives.

A physics PhD and a high-profile government job is not a moral sanction to violate consumers' right to choose.

Brian T. Schwartz
Boulder, CO

Physics of Climate is Inherently Political

The new Topical Group on the Physics of Climate (APS News, June 2011) has a most unusual charter. In the statement of its objective and areas of interest on the APS website (http://www.aps.org/units/gpc/index.cfm) we are reminded (4 times) that it is outside, not intended, or not concerned with societal issues and that it is entirely within the domain of natural sciences. No other unit of APS has any such pretense.

Physics in this country and elsewhere is largely supported by the state and has been in the lifetime of every physicist living today. It is always political.

Nothing is of greater human importance and generality than climate. States and individuals all over the world are interested in it, and always have been. So are corporations. The campaign of two years ago to revise the very sensible APS statement on climate change (adopted by the Council of the APS on 18 November 2007) was quite properly refuted. That campaign was a highly ideological political event in physics.

Solid knowledge of the physics of climate will be vital if we are to make good choices in light of the ongoing (as the APS statement noted) climate change, deal with its consequences and causes, and, for example, protect people from the dangers of ill conceived “climate engineering” schemes. Physicists are contributing greatly to solving these problems. On the other hand, the charter of the APS Topical Group on the Physics of Climate is false and polluted.

Donald H. McNeill
Pittsburgh, PA

Past Presidents Don’t Define Their Parties

Howard Greyber (letter in August/September APS News) explains scientists’ liberal preferences as a result of “naive prejudices” and “willful ignorance about politics.” In his view, American science and technology will be helped when science and math education are reformed by the Republican Party, which he refers to as “the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.”

Greyber may have meant this reference as no more than a rhetorical flourish. On the other hand, he believes that physicists suffer from “willful ignorance about politics,” so he may have expected us to believe that the policies of the current Republican Party match those of these past presidents.

However, political parties evolve over time. For example, the current Republican party rejects out of hand any tax increase, while Ronald Reagan increased taxes when he concluded that it was necessary.

Abraham Lincoln did likewise.  During his administration, the US had its first income tax, intended to pay for the Civil War. 

Current Republican thinking emphasizes the great importance of capital in creating opportunities for labor. Contrast this with Lincoln’s view of labor and capital, as expressed in his 1861 State of the Union speech: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”1

In his speech at Osawatomie, Kansas in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt echoed Lincoln’s statements about labor and capital. He went on to say that corporations should not be allowed to contribute to political parties. He stated that government should supervise the capitalization of corporations. He also proposed an inheritance tax on large fortunes.2

Roosevelt had implemented similar progressive policies when he served as president. He was known as a trust-buster. The Hepburn Act, passed during his administration, allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate many aspects of railroads including rates charged for passengers. The Pure Food and Drug Act put federal regulators in charge of many aspects of food and drug manufacture.

As a trust-buster and regulator, Roosevelt would not fit with the Republican party of today. Even in his day, he may have been too progressive for the other party. In 1912, he broke with the Republicans and ran for president in the Progressive Party.

I would be happy if the 2012 presidential election would be won by a party that deserved the title of “Party of Theodore Roosevelt,” but that could not be the present-day Republican Party.

Brent Warner
Greenbelt MD

1. Abraham Lincoln, State of the Union 1861, downloaded 2011/09/21 from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/
2. Aida Donald, Lion in the White House, Basic Books, New York, 2007, p 240-242.

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Editor: Alan Chodos