The powerful Illusion of Free Will

Once again, I find myself grappling with the question of free will. Do we really have free will? Do we exercise choices? As a child, I was constantly reminded to make good choices. I certainly felt like I was making choices. I could choose to play outside or indoors; choose to eat a particular food or not. I heard my internal dialog and then followed one voice. But was this choice real, or was it a mere illusion?

As a teen, I became convinced there was no free will. The “choices” I appear to make at any point in time make are a “product” of who I am at that instant ( and the situation I find myself in. These “choices” affect me and what becomes of me ready to face the next instant. I even wrote a mathematical expression that captured this evolution:

Sn+1 = Sn ´ En

Sn = Sn-1 ´ En-1

Sn+1 = (Sn-1 ´ En-1)´ En

Through recursive logic I concluded that my current self is a result of a series of interactions between my original self (S0)—over which I had no control—and the environmental factors (En, En-1, En­2…E0)—also something over which I did not control. Ergo, no free will!

It was a convincing yet very unsatisfying logic. If there is no free will, one could bear no responsibility for one’s actions. There can’t heroes or villains. But I had heroes because they demonstrated courage, or because they chose the righteous path. How else do I account for my uncle who during India’s partition saved numerous Hindus and Muslims by swimming them to safety across a river? Surely, these heroes made those choices in the moment. Likewise, what about the villains? History is replete with examples of people who have committed heinous crimes. Do they not bear responsibility for their actions, and shouldn’t they be brought to justice?

That idea that we make choices in the moment appealed to me, and I was comfortable with it for a long time. It preserved the notion of taking responsibility for one’s actions, and I could return to reminding my wards to make good choices. But, here I am again struggling with the age-old question. Any choice I make in that split second is made in my brain, and my unique neurochemistry predisposes me to that choice.

Advances in psychiatry and neurosciences are increasingly telling us how certain individuals respond to treatments while others do not. Genetics, as well as epigenetic factors, often control how we respond to socials cues as well as to drugs administered to treat for those conditions. I am thinking of people with autism spectrum disorder and other such ailments. Surely, we do not wish to “punish” those with mental conditions for behavior they cannot control. What about people predisposed to addiction? What about their actions while under the influence? What is their responsibility?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote that free will is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the better we get at it. While that is true, what is it that makes this reinforcement possible in the first instance? I circle back to the quandary that we never had any control on our original selves (S0) nor any of the environmental circumstances (E0, E1, E2,… En).

By the same token, the fact that I am unable to rid myself of the notion of free will is also something beyond my control. Thus, I continue to “judge” people for their actions. If it seems like I am making this choice, even this choice was already made for me.

I am beginning to appreciate the irony in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s quote, “We must believe in free will—we have no choice!”


What Sh’ma Means to Me

June 23, 2014

Dear Rabbi Helfand,

Last week you asked me what I think of when I recite the Sh’ma, something I do during the Shabbat services. So what does a professed atheist like me make of the statement, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Good question! I could cop out by saying that I don’t speak Hebrew, and so most of the time the utterance just flows out meaninglessly (Truth be told, most of the times it is simply a habit, and since I have decided to participate in the services, I just go along do it without thinking). But the translation is right there in front of me. And, it is a call to pay attention—Hear O Israel; how can I ignore that. I could say that the blessing is a call to  the Israelites, and I am not one of them. But then it wouldn’t be consistent with my interpretation and understanding of the story of Exodus: of a journey from slavery to freedom. I connect myself with the Israelites with the acceptance of my freedom and the responsibility that comes with it.

At the moment I gave you a glib answer—something along the lines that an atheist like me wishes the theists of the world would heed this blessing and stop fighting. The morning’s news about the ISIS taking over large swaths of Iraq and the raging sectarian battle was still weighing on me. I promised to send you a more thought out response.

On my way home I thought about the piece I had written about my atheism. I recalled that for me when stripped of the 3-O qualities (omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent) God was reduced to Nature in all its power and glory. I also recalled that prayers fell into one or more of the following four categories: (1) expressions of one’s wishes and aspirations; (2) expressions of wonder and awe about Nature; (3) expressions of gratitude; and (4) expressions of contrition.

With that framework in mind, I began mulling over the question you raised. I can see the Sh’ma fitting into the first category—an expression of one’s wishes and aspirations—though restricted to the wish part. I wish the theists would stop fighting because they all believe in the same one God. Over the ages so many wars have been fought in the name of God. But why express this wish? Is it a plea for God to intervene? Broadly speaking, for an atheist these expressions are certainly not pleas to God to grant them, and they are not so even for many theists. By giving voice to our wishes and aspirations we are affirming our desires, and motivating ourselves for the tasks ahead to achieve those outcomes. You articulated this very well in your D’var Torah last Saturday.

Second, since to me God is to be equated with Nature, Sh’ma is a reminder that Natural laws apply to all; that no one is above them. I find it comforting to note that these laws apply uniformly and universally, that there are no preferential treatments for the rich or privileged, or chosen groups. It is a very egalitarian notion, and reinforces my solidarity with other inhabitants of this world, nay this entire universe.

70 Years Ago

The NY Times invited readers to submit stories about their family’s experiences during India’s partition to mark the 70th anniversary of that fateful event. A truncated version of my submission was published.  Here is the full version of the story I had submitted.

My parents lived in Lahore during the time of partition. My father worked in a bank—Punjab National Bank? or was it Lahore Bank? My mother was pregnant with my brother and they were hoping they could wait to relocate to India after my brother was born. However, after August 14 rioting and violence got too severe, and their Muslim neighbors—who had been sheltering them up until them—told them that the situation was too dangerous and they may not be able to protect them any longer.  My parents along with my then 3-yr old sister and my father’s youngest sister (ca. 12 years) left everything and departed with just the clothes on their backs. They traveled variously on foot with the caravan, buses, and trains, to finally make it to Delhi, in India; and then my brother was born on Sep. 3. They were fortunate to get to safety; many of our relatives did not make it.

The story from the period that sticks with me is of my maternal uncle. He lived in Jammu and was a lad of 15 at the time of the partition. He must have been aware of the mass violence around him—including that to his sister—but he did not take up arms and perpetuate the violence. Instead, he chose to help Hindus and Muslims alike to get to safety. He spent his days carrying two Muslims from the East to the West across the river, Tavi, and then two Hindus from the West to the East on his shoulders—back and forth. My uncle’s story reminds me that people can stop the cycle of violence.


My uncle, Shree Baldev Dhawan (ca. 1959)

Once in India, my parents started anew. My father followed jobs. He took up a job with the bank he was employed in while in Lahore, and led a team back to Lahore (without telling my mother) to recover the bank safe. Then he moved on to Bombay with another bank, and then to Dehradoon (where I was born), and finally settling down with a stable job in Calcutta—a city that is culturally and linguistically as foreign as German is to Italian, except that Hindi and Bengali don’t even share a common script!


Me with my parents in Calcutta (ca. 1954).

Growing up though, I never got the sense that my parents harbored any sense of victimization.  That attitude must have served them well in life. My uncle’s righteous response to violence and my parent’s attitude are things I try to remember when life throws me curve ball.


US Withdrawal from Paris Accord

Last few weeks I have often been asked about the effect of the US withdrawing from the Paris accord—and yesterday it happened! It is a good question, but because there are countervailing factors the answer is not straightforward—the net effect ranges from minimal to quite profound.

The Paris Agreement is not a binding treaty; it requires voluntary cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2. The desired target set by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) is to cut energy-related global CO2 emissions from the current 36 Gt-CO2 each year to about 17 Gt- CO2 by 2035 and then be net zero by 2050. If all the signatory nations cut their emissions by the amounts they have pledged, the global emissions are slated to rise to 55 Gt- CO2. Clearly, all nations will have to do a whole lot more if the IPCC targets are to be realized. Indeed, it was the expectation that the signatory nations will periodically review their progress and make additional pledges.

Trump questioned the “fairness” of the agreement by saying that it imposes undue economic burden on US while allowing developing nations to continue emitting CO2. Like I said, no nation is imposing any burden on any other nation. It is all based on independently determined voluntary contributions. Also, I wonder what is Trump’s definition of fairness. China may have higher emissions than the US, but per capita emissions in the US is twice as high as in China and much higher than in much of the developing world. Moreover, the US, and other developed nations have been adding copious quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. They have reaped all the benefits of industrialization. The developing nations, with a much larger population, have only recently begun the process of improving the lot of their citizens by expanding energy use. Asking them to share equally in cutting emissions? Now that’s unfair!

As far as global emissions are concerned, the rest of the world will continue to make progress. In the US too, progress will continue along that front thanks to economic factors (i.e. cheap natural gas) and actions at state and city levels. The repeal of rules implemented under Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) does remove incentives for auto manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles, including electric cars. That action will likely result in the US ceding leadership in electric cars and batteries to manufacturers in Europe and Asia. The repeal of CPP is not likely to increase coal use for power generation—liberalization of Oil and Gas industry will increase the production of natural gas, which will continue to be fuel of choice for power production. Switching out coal for natural gas will reduce U.S. emissions, but the lack of regulations and requirements for monitoring fugitive natural gas—a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 —could wipe out any benefits there may have been from fuel switching.

A real opportunity for reducing emissions lies in the advanced nuclear technologies. I spoke on the topic two weeks ago. I devoted much of my talk to addressing the widely-held fears and risks of nuclear power, and on the newer thorium-based nuclear technologies that are walk-away safe and generate a very small amount of radioactive waste that would require safeguarding—essentially, burial under six feet of ground—for only about 300 years.

My talk can be viewed here. Unfortunately, since the slides cannot be seen very clearly in the video, I have posted them my Google Drive and you can download them here. It is a long video (about 1.5 h including Q&A), but I hope you can make time to view it. I would be most interested in hearing about any comments or questions you might have, and particularly so if after you viewing you still think that the world would be better off not developing nuclear power.


Misplaced emphasis on green jobs

There is a lot of talk this election season about jobs. Hillary Clinton wants to invest heavily in transforming the US energy supply and touts the large number of green jobs that will create.  As I have previously written, I think this emphasis on the number of jobs in energy industries is misplaced. The role of the energy industry is not to employ many workers within itself, but to produce a commodity at an affordable price to enable other industries and businesses to flourish and in so doing provide employment for many. We don’t necessarily want many people employed in the production of energy—a commodity; rather we want more people employed in the consumption of energy. Wages for every employee engaged in production add to the cost of producing the commodity, making it more expensive for other businesses and industries to use it and employ more workers.

It is true that green energy employs many more people, but to get more quantitative—which is my wont—I browsed through the databases published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to cull some relevant data. For the amount of energy produced by each sector, I used the data from the 2016 BP Review of Global Energy. Whereas the BLS continues to track the numbers for the Oil and Gas, Coal, Nuclear, Hydro, and many other industries, it stopped tracking Green Energy jobs in 2013—a casualty of the sequestration that went into effect when the Congress could not agree on a balanced budget. Besides, its definition of “green jobs” was very broad. Fortunately, the International Renewable Energy Agency does track the global employment in wind, solar, and other renewable technologies.

The following table lists the number of workers employed in the different energy sector and the amount of energy produced by them. For the first four entries the numbers refer to the US only, but for Wind and Solar they refer to global employment and global energy production. The relevant point for comparison is the per capita productivity. Whereas each worker in the Nuclear power produces over 100 GWh/year, the productivity of workers in Wind and Solar power sectors generate less than 1 GWh/yr.

Table 1. Per capita energy productivity is the highest for nuclear power.

Sector # Workers Energy Produced (TWh) Productivity
Nuclear (US) 7,000 760 109
Coal (US) 70,000 1,600 23
Oil & Gas (US) 170,000 6,260 37
Hydro (US) 6,000 230 38
Wind (Global) 1,081,000 841 0.78
Solar (Global) 2,772,000 253 0.09

An Atheist Prays

I am an atheist, and I pray.  OK, so like most mortals I am inconsistent. That’s one way out of this paradox, but it is not very satisfying. I attend services at the synagogue and observe Jewish rituals with my wife even though I profess to be—not just agnostic about religion but—an atheist. The situation sets off a series of questions. How can I pray when I do not believe in God? Whom do I pray to? What do I pray? Doesn’t my rationality protest vehemently when I am praying? My wife calls me an enigma.

All too often arguments or dilemmas arise because people understand the words differently. The understanding develops from a synthesis of life’s experiences. In my case this understanding entails synthesis of ideas gained while growing up in a Hindu family and attending a Catholic school and later as an adult what I imbibed through various readings, practicing Transcendental Meditation, and living with a Jewish wife. We raised first our daughter in the Jewish faith, and are now doing the same for our grandson. What follows is a summation of my thinking, my belief if you will. The ideas are not original; however, the reason I use them without attribution is that the arguments must stand on their own merit and not on some authority’s say so.

I was born into a Hindu family, and so de facto, I am a Hindu. Hinduism spans a very broad spectrum of belief systems, philosophies, and practices, although they all stem from the principles set forth in the Vedas. At one end Hinduism embraces pantheism with trillions of gods—every person, animal, plant being gods in their own right and therefore deserving of respect and dignity. At the opposite end is the belief in a single abstract, form-less, attribute-less god—the source of everything. I grew up believing that the manifest creation came into being from this formless god, which is pure intelligence, homogeneous emptiness; just awareness.  But there is nothing for It to be aware of except of Itself. This self-referral—as the subject of awareness also becomes the object of awareness—is the first split in the totally undifferentiated Being. It is like “breaking of symmetry,” to borrow a phrase from modern cosmology, leading to manifestation of what was un-manifest.

I grew up in a family that followed the precepts of Arya Samaj. Central to this reform sect of Hinduism are monotheism, the everlasting nature of the soul, and abolition of the rigid caste system—which, according to the movement’s founder, Swami Dayanand Saraswati—had corrupted the Vedic traditions, and all gods are but different manifestations of the transcendent One. No wonder then that my parents did not hesitate at all in sending me to a Catholic school, which was run by Jesuit priests. St. Lawrence High School offered the finest schooling in Calcutta, and I remain forever grateful for the education I received at the hands of the fathers who taught us “Moral Science,” but did not proselytize.

To me “God” is a shorthand notation for the omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent entity that created this universe and controls everything that happens in it. A theist is defined as someone believing in a God who having created the universe engages in it and guides its destiny. This entity is super-natural in that natural laws do not apply to it. It is the super-naturalism that I object to. Under this literal definition of theism, I suspect there are many more atheists than people willing to call themselves as such.

My atheism is not just rejection of the personified gods, or of the monotheistic God of Abraham worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who created the world in seven days etc. It is the rejection of the notion that there is a supernatural entity—one that transcends the laws of nature; to whom the laws of causality do not apply; one who works in mysterious ways that we cannot understand, but nonetheless guides every facet of this universe.

I recognize that our existence is most complex and amazing, that power of nature far exceeds mine, and there are virtues such as kindness, generosity, and altruism. Many philosophers have proffered these as proof of God’s existence. But then they are speaking of an agenda-less God, namely of one who merely set the things in motion. Given time—and we have had billions of years to evolve—the relentless forces of nature naturally lead to the most improbable structures. They do not require the intervention of an intelligent, omniscient Being to direct the forces of nature so they produce these complex structures and yes, even human beings. Even the origin of consciousness and notions such as altruism and goodness, which some authors have suggested as evidence of God, are to be found in the neurochemistry of the brain. I do not see goodness in this world as proof of God’s presence, because goodness does not require supernatural intervention. The fact that goodness, altruism, and even consciousness itself can be a result of natural evolution is truly amazing. I celebrate that.

So why do I pray? Why do I recite liturgy that refers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Not because I ascribe any authority to the words in Torah or believe that these were God’s words, but for the simple reason that I find the ideas expressed in them—and in prayers from different traditions—resonating with me. Once you strip the liturgy of the reference to God, you find that prayers are expressions of wonderment of nature, of our aspirations, of our desires, and of contrition. I subscribe to all these feelings. Nature is awesome and amazing, and I am so thankful that I am here to experience it! Think about it.  What probability that of the myriads of possible DNA sequences, the one identifying me is here today! I have aspirations. I wish I could be a better person than I am—a kinder, more loving, and less prone to anger person than I am. I wish the world were a more peaceful place that afforded everyone an opportunity to pursue healthy productive lives.

I do not deny that faced with the realities of existence—the all too pervasive injustices, and depravity—it could be comforting to believe that perhaps there is a Being watching over all of us who has a plan. I long for that comfort, and at times am even envious of the people who believe. They can pray to their God to make things right, or accept that it is all happening for a reason, obscure as that might be. But for the atheist there is no solace in such believing.

Hum ko malum hai, jannat ki haquikat lekin
Dil ke khush rakhne ko, Ghalib yeh khayyal acchha hai.

I know the truth about Paradise, but
To appease one’s heart Ghalib, it is a fine delusion.

I admit that I occasionally get goose bumps when I hear the congregation sing Etz Chayim hi or choke up when reciting certain other passages in the liturgy. The physical experience is real. I want to experience that tingling sensation every time, and miss it when I don’t. Friends have argued that this feeling is evidence of God’s presence. But that feeling could not be the proof for God’s existence. It is wishing that God existed. That’s wishful thinking. That’s a prayer!



I first wrote this essay in 2012, and have tweaked it over the years. An abridged version of this piece aired as a Perspective on KQED Radio.  You can hear it here.

Trump’s energy policy speech

I haven’t been paying much attention to the statements made by the presumptive Republican nominee, Mr. Donald J. Trump. His bombastic and inflammatory comments early in the campaign had turned me off. On May 26 he gave speech on energy policy at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, in Bismarck, North Dakota. A friend sent me a news clip of his speech wondering if his statement about the relative oil reserves of the US and OPEC were correct. Energy happens to be a subject that I am quite familiar with: having worked in the area for thirty years and written a book and blogging on the subject. My immediate response upon hearing him was that he was totally wrong. US oil reserves are only a fifth of those of Saudi Arabia, and even with the recent gush of shale oil, the US reserves remain a tiny fraction.

What puzzled me was why a candidate for the US Presidency would make such an obvious mistake. And so I listened to his statement again; this time very carefully to see if I had missed something—and indeed I had. Here is a link to his full speech.

In a single sentence Trump says that the US has 1.5 times oil than the combined reserves of OPEC. One would think that when he says “US has 1.5 times oil” he is also referring to the oil reserves of the US, otherwise the comparison would not make much sense. But he did not say that US reserves of oil are 1.5 times those of OPEC. He only said that US “has 1.5 times oil…” Such a comparison would be as meaningless as me saying I have more money than Trump has cash in his pockets—a statement while most likely true is totally disingenuous and insincere!

Here are some numbers in cmo units—cmo stands for a cubic mile of oil and is equal to 26.2 billion bbl (barrels) or 3,784 million metric tons of oil equivalent (MTOE). US oil reserves are less than 2.0 cmo; Saudi Arabian reserves are over 10 cmo. The reserves of all OPEC countries add up to 43 cmo. Russian reserves are about 4 cmo. If by “has” Trump is referring to all US resources, including oil shale (not just shale oil, which can be produced by fracking), then yes he may be correct. US has an estimated 70 cmo of oil shale, but for whose recovery we do not have an economic technology. Remember, oil shale is that vast resource that has oil precursors embedded in shale, but the geology has not yet done the job of producing the oil. We have to dig up the rock and heat it to produce the oil or heat it underground to liberate the oil. For a fairer comparison of respective resources we should look at the resource base of OPEC too, which is estimated at about 40 cmo on top of the 43 cmo of reserves.

Trump also makes the audacious claim that the US has more natural gas than Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The natural gas reserves of the US are 2.2 cmo, while those of Russia are 4.0. The combined reserves of Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are 23 cmo. Hard as much as I try, I cannot rationalize Trump’s statements about natural gas.

A basic premise of Trump’s speech was that the regulations had been curtailing production in the US energy resources. He wants to declare US energy dominance a strategic, economic, and foreign policy goal. He would achieve that goal by getting rid of those onerous restrictions by the EPA and other agencies. He will cancel the Paris Climate Agreement (COP21) and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N global warming programs.

His main assumption is that once the regulations are gone, the oil and gas industry could ramp up production and bring wealth to America. This line of reasoning takes no account of the fact that the global market is already oversupplied. Increasing US production will only further depress the prices and make much of the US production uneconomic. When oil prices fell from $100/bbl in 2014 to below $30/bbl in 2015, investments in new drilling ceased, rig counts plunged from 1900 to 400, and many boom towns in North Dakota, Montana, and Texas became emaciated skeletons of their roaring days. This decline was not a self-inflicted wound; it did not occur as a result of EPA-imposed regulations. In order for the US oil to garner a greater share of the global market, it would have to undersell the low priced competition from Saudi Arabia—and there goes the economic incentive for any oil producer in a free economy.

Trump blames regulations like the Clean Power Production as the chief reason coal production and use in the US has dropped sharply—from producing 50% of US electricity to producing only 33%. The Clean Air Act and its amendments dating from the 1970s and 1990s increased the cost of electricity from coal, but they did not remove the dominance of coal in power production. The main reason for the decline has been the availability of cheap natural gas. Cleaner and cheaper natural gas has made coal burning power plants relatively uneconomical. Under Trump’s plan, restrictions on fracking for oil and gas would be lifted and flood the market would be further flooded with cheap gas, which would only hasten the demise of coal. Those coal mining jobs that he talks about cannot be restored as long as there is an abundance of natural gas, unless he artificially raises the price of natural gas. He cannot have both gas and coal industries flourish simultaneously—at least not in a free market democracy.

According to Trump, “President Obama entered the United States into the Paris Climate Accords – unilaterally, and without the permission of Congress. This agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use right here in America.” To begin with COP21 is an Agreement, not a treaty that would require congressional approval.  Under COP21 foreign bureaucrats do not control how much or how we use energy in America. In fact, the Agreement relies solely on “intended nationally determined contributions (INDC),” which are put forth by the signatory nations themselves.  The problem with COP21 is that the current set of INDCs do not go far enough to meet the reductions required to limit the Earth’s warming to 2°C above the pre-industrialization level.  But then again, Trump does not believe in climate change results from greenhouse gases.

What these considerations show is that Trump lacks the basic understanding of the facts of the global energy market—who has what and how much. He has no appreciation of the interrelatedness of the energy markets. Given the centrality of energy in matters of national security, foreign relations, and trade, I am afraid that should Trump become our next president, we better fasten our seat belts—it’s going to be a very bumpy ride.

Thank you, my body

Signs of fall are all around me.  Leaves are turning, there’s crispness in the morning air, Halloween decorations festoon the neighborhood.  Thanksgiving is just around the corner.  I went for a bike ride at the Crystal Springs Reservoir this morning.  A thick fog lay heavily on the water concealing the far side, and who knows what else.  I turned on a playlist of nostalgic songs on my phone and pedaled on, drifting in and out of the mist of my mind and reliving some childhood memories.

I had woken up pretty achy this morning, and I was hoping that the Naproxen tablet I had taken would kick in.  For sure it did, because within a few minutes I was not aware of any pain.  Thank you, oh wondrous pain killer.

As I let my thoughts wander towards appreciation of the marvels of modern medicine, I also realized that I should be grateful to my body as well.  Yes, this body that I have not been proud of, and have mostly dwelt on its dysfunctions—no need to enumerate them here.  I was the frail child that got injured most readily, the one who got sick most often.  I had no aptitude for any sports.  I was weak and slow, and constantly reminded of that.  I was always the last one to be picked for a team; and if that’s not enough indignation, more than half a century later, I can still hear the words of the captain whose turn it was to pick me say to the opposing captain, “You have a stronger team, you take Ripu.”  But, now in my 65th year, it is this same body that is propelling me up the bike path to the dam.  It is the one that over the decades has let me hike to Burgess shale, enjoy great vistas in the Sierra and the Cascades, climb the Yosemite Falls, and be amazed by the architecture at Machu Pichu.  I am so remiss in not being grateful to you.

Let me atone that omission by recounting some of the ways I am indebted to you, my body.  You haven’t failed me.  I am alive with my faculties mostly intact.  I can still enjoy my foot hitting the duff in the Redwoods, smell the terpenes the air, appreciate the music of cicadas and birds, enjoy good wine and single malts.  I can take pleasure in the company of my wife and friends, watch my grandchildren grow with pride, and look with anticipation at the mist rising right in front of my eye, as it unveils new views.  Boy, am I ever so grateful!  So, here’s to you my body; I say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”


I wrote this piece in October 2015, and an edited version aired on KQED Perspectives on Nov. 5, 2015.  Here’s the link to the audio:

I Feel the Bern—Heart Burn

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” This quote by H. L. Mencken applies so well to many of the solutions been proffered by the candidates seeking the presidency of the United States in 2016. In this post, however, I am focusing on Senator Sanders, and will show how several of his solutions exemplify Mencken’s quote.

Sanders has started a “political revolution” and his widespread appeal cannot be denied. I did not think that he would do as well through the primary season as he has done. I thought that by the time California primaries rolled around, the race for the nominee would be over and I wouldn’t have to look very deeply at his candidacy. But here it is—middle of May and he is going strong.

I have looked at several of Senator Sanders’ positions, and I find them to be troubling. Here are just three examples that follow a pattern of oversimplification to the point that critical details—wherein lie the leverage points that need attention—get glossed over and it leads to flawed policies.

Break Up Big Banks

Take his solution of breaking up the big banks because they are now bigger than they were when they caused a financial catastrophe in 2007. “Break up the big banks” makes for a good slogan and can galvanize activists, but focusing on the size of banks alone will not solve the problem. Indeed, Lehman Brothers—which was not even a bank to begin with—was a much smaller financial institution, but it was over-leveraged with widespread connections to other financial institutions such that its failure had a rippling and devastating effect on the market. The insurance giant AIG was similarly positioned, and it had to be bailed out because its collapse would have totally crippled global economy.

The Dodd-Frank reforms that were implemented tried to address the underlying problems of over-leveraging and connectivity and they have markedly refused the risk of failure. The banks now have to hold larger amounts of cash reserve and they have been directed to develop plans for their orderly liquidation should that situation arise. The plans for orderly liquidation are still being iterated on, yet the measures undertaken so far go a long way in reducing risk to general public from fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the banks. I highly recommend reading this insightful analysis by Ben Bernanke.

Climate Change and Energy

“End the use of fossil fuels” is another slogan that Sanders repeats in his speeches, because as he reminds us scientists agree that the risks from climate change are real and if do not take bold action now, the situation will get much worse. He proposes leaving most of our coal, oil, and natural gas reserves in the ground. The reason the world hasn’t taken strong action is because of billionaires who reap profits from the fossil fuel industry.

Now I am not a billionaire, I am a scientist, and I agree with the urgent need to curb emissions of carbon dioxide. However, fossil fuels provide over 80% of the primary energy the world uses, and while the cost of solar and wind power has plunged dramatically, these systems barely provide 3% of global energy. If we start shutting off fossil energy plants faster than we can ramp up energy delivered from renewable sources, we will be reducing the total supply of energy in an already energy-starved world.

Energy plays a critical role in lifting people out of poverty. Poverty today claims lives of over 15,000 children under the age of five each day. That’s comparable to the number of people who died in the wake of the tsunami in Japan in 2014. Eliminating poverty should be the top priority for any progressive, socially-just policy. About 1.5 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity and another 2 billion have poor or intermittent access. Providing adequate affordable energy to all requires at least doubling current global production capacity. What is required is a nuanced approach that recognizes what is available and makes optimal use of those resources.

I have written more extensively on this topic here and more generally on energy on my energy blog. Substituting natural gas for coal makes —to borrow Sanders’ expression—a “yuge” impact, but Sanders is opposed to developing natural gas resources because they involve hydraulic fracturing. His policy calls for a complete moratorium on the practice. His stand against the Keystone pipeline simply diverts the oil to flow through less-safe rail cars! Developing nuclear energy could be a way to generate electricity for the world without emitting carbon dioxide. But Sanders is opposed to that too. There are new designs for nuclear power that are inherently safe but they need to be advanced to the demonstration stage with public support before they can be deployed. To be sure, countries that really need this technology, like India and China, will develop it.  It’s just that the US will lose its leadership position. By depriving people of energy Sanders’ positions ultimately hurt the very people he wants to help, namely the poor.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

Finally, I looked at his stance towards Israel-Palestine conflict. Sanders condemns both sides for the ugly violence during 2014, and “while recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself, he also strongly condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza as disproportionate and the widespread killing of civilians as completely unacceptable.” This strong condemnation of Israel for disproportionate killing of civilians seems to ignore the factors leading to the “disproportionate killings.” It is not because of a lack of trying on the part of Palestinians. Any one of the over 4,000 rockets fired at by Hamas could have wreaked great havoc on the Israelis but for their Iron Dome defense system. Hamas also chose to fire those rockets from densely populated civilian areas such that any retaliation would likely lead to civilian casualties and thus gain international sympathy. It is worth noting that residents of the Gaza Strip duly elected Hamas, which joined the Palestinian Authority in a unity government, and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

What I see here is a pattern of oversimplifying the narrative to make bold policy statements that can galvanize social activism, but are not likely to solve the problem because they ignore the complexities involved. A more granular approach is needed if one truly wants to address the problems, but such nuanced policies do not make for good slogans to whip up crowds. For this reason I’m With Her.