Steven Hawking created a stir over a year ago when the publication of his latest book, The Grand Design, supposedly unmasked his atheism. He's probably been an atheist for most if not all his life, but he knows how to launch a book. The Grand Design broke no new scientific ground, but became famous if not notorious for its many sweeping statements, summarized as the sufficiency of physical laws to create the universe. "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," he wrote, losing most of us at Hello. "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist."
Unintentionally, The Grand Design puts a scientific gloss on a kind of magical thinking that's becoming more apparent among the political elite: They seem to believe that laws create reality. Of course, no scientist actually says that; what Hawking means is that certain physical processes are reliable enough to label as "laws," and those processes are sufficient to create. That's questionable enough, but law- and policy-makers seem to have convinced themselves that laws and policy alone are enough to create a desired reality, regardless of the process.
For example: the Environmental Protection Agency is determined to increase fuel efficiency in cars and trucks, and lower greenhouse gases. To that end, it pumps out standards and regulations and penalties designed to put pressure on automakers and oil producers. Last month, blogger Fred Schwartz pointed out the juxtaposition of two articles on the front page of The New York Times, Jan. 10. The first reported how auto manufacturers are building and promoting electric and hybrid cars in response to EPA guidelines, but consumers aren't buying them. Since lower gasoline usage requires that people actually drive the approved vehicles, this opens a rather large gap between rule and reality.
A second article told how the EPA is fining oil producers for their failure to use cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that supposedly reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent over gasoline. Big oil's excuse is that cellulosic ethanol doesn't exist, or not in the quantities required. No kidding: There's no way yet to mass-produce the stuff. Technology didn't get the memo from EPA.
A much larger and more troubling example is the cinder-block-size piece of legislation known as Obamacare. Since Congress passed the bill and we started finding out what was in it, various appendages have revealed themselves to be impossible. The CLASS provision (Community Living Assistance Services and Support) was supposed to help keep aging citizens out of nursing homes, but before it could take effect at the end of 2011, someone ran the numbers.
It would require as little as $5 per month from low-income workers, and unless forced to participate, most working citizens who don't expect long-term health issues after retirement would simply opt out. That would mean few people paying in for extensive services the federal government (i.e., taxpayers) would have to pay out, resulting in "an insurance death spiral" like Medicaid and Medicare. Under Republican threats to repeal CLASS, the Obama administration quietly spiked the program.
But that's only one little part of Obamacare. We don't hear much about the 1,231 (and counting) businesses and organizations that have received waivers from the Department of Health and Human Services, representing about 4 million Americans who won't have to meet Obamacare requirements. The number of doctors who are rejecting Medicare patients because of insufficient compensation-which will only get worse with Obamacare patients-hasn't received much press: Our healthcare story in this issue offers a dose of reality. As the behemoth law lumbers toward implementation, more and more of its provisions are shown to be, to put it mildly, out of touch with the real world.
At the beginning of the universe, God said, "Let it be." And it was: light, water, land, life. Let it be doesn't work too well for us, whether we're brilliant physicists or humdrum bureaucrats. Technological progress has encouraged magical thinking at all levels, but we know what goes before a fall.