Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Lure of Free Lunches

At Obsidian Wings today Hilzoy had a post criticizing Senator Sam Brownback's editorial against stem cell research. It reminded me a great deal of recent columns by Rich Lowry and Charles Krauthammer criticizing Al Gore's approach to global warming. Brownback and Gore, though far apart ideologically, share a common problem -- both consider it vitally important to adopt policies that will have unpopular consequences.

Al Gore fears that pollution will lead to catastrophic global warming. But cutting back on greenhouse gases requires people to give up many of their creature comforts that cause pollution and hampers our economic growth. Since making economic sacrifices will meet with resistence, Gore assures us that creating cleaner technologies is a growth industry and we can offset the pollution we create by buying "carbon units" to reduce greenhouse gases somewhere else.

Senator Brownback considers embryonic stem cell research (which involves the destruction of embryos) to be a form of murder. But condemning stem cell research means elevating the rights of a 5-day-old blastocyte over the hope of helping chronically ill people. Since this set of priorities also tends to meet with resistence, Brownback argues that adult stem cells offer more promising therapy, and that embryonic research is a dangerous distraction.

There are no free lunches here. If adult stem cell research was more promising than embryonic, then no one would bother with embryos. If new technologies could maintain our present standard of living without the pollution, they would long since have been adopted. There are painful trade-offs to be made here that both men avoid discussing because they fear, no doubt correctly, that faced with the real choices most people would not share their priorities. Global warming seems so overwhelming, and each person's ability to fight it so small, that few would be willing to give up their creature comforts to remove a few drops from the great ocean. And if 5-day-old blastocytes are very young people, they have less emotional appeal and are not as good at telling a heartrending story than people with Parkinson's, Alzheimers and the like.

Of course, clever politicians know that they will never get people to adopt their desired policies only by moral appeals; they must convince people that the policies serve their interests. And technology - whether cleaner and more efficient techologies that pollute less or adult stem cell research - holds great promise. Perhaps only by convincing people that the desired technology is cost-free can it be made viable at all.

But even so, sometimes I long for honest voices, telling us the unpleasant truth, and demanding that we acknowledge the difficult choices that must be made.


Blogger Psycheout said...

There is no free lunch. But if one lunch results in tumors and the other results in demonstrated cures, I choose the latter.

Keep up on the latest Brownback buzz at Blogs 4 Brownback!

10:47 PM  

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