Wednesday, May 22, 2013

This Is a Hard Post for Me to Write, Given How Much I Hate Wind

A couple months ago in Mental Floss, there was an article entitled "FDR's Weather Machine" (March/April 2013, p. 12). It's a wonderful example of the credulity of partisan Americans when told something they want to believe.

The claim is made that "when strong winds turned the Great Plains into a Dust Bowl, Franklin Roosevelt fought back by controlling the weather." Really? Controlling the weather? Let's look at this.

First of all, the Dust Bowl was concentrated in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas, but "trees were planted in a 100-mile-wide band that stretched from Texas to Canada." Secondly, the Dust Bowl was heaviest from 1935 to 1940. The Prairie States Forestry Project began in 1935 and ended in 1942. How mature are seven-year-old trees? Thirdly, in the Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions the mistaken notion of early Plains settlers that planting trees would change the climate. The government gave homesteaders a break on land they intended to keep as a forest. Part of what caused Almanzo and Laura to leave South Dakota is the failure of their forest section.

Okay, maybe FDR wasn't "controlling the weather" as much as he was just "blocking the wind." But blocking wind isn't a new concept. Growing up in California, I saw eucalyptus windbreaks my whole life.

I'll grant that barren soil blows away more easily than that bearing vegetation. If standard crops can't survive in a drought, planting drought-resistant trees can help curb soil erosion. But this isn't the heroic effort of a demigod.

The real reason for Roosevelt favoring the planting of 220 million trees was because of his wrong-headed Depression coping ideas. In his General Theory, Keynes wrote,

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. (p. 129)
This quote makes me want to bang my head against a wall. He honestly thinks real income would increase?! The treasury would have diverted productive resources to unproductive tasks. The treasury could have just handed the money out, which would have increased monetary income while not diverting resources. Real income necessarily decreases under such a scheme. When FDR campaigned on great-sounding-but-vacuous ideas (who else has done that recently?) like "let's plant a million trees to end the unemployment problem," he was taking Keynes at his word.

FDR didn't end the Dust Bowl, just like he didn't end the Depression. He made poor choices that coincided with those events ending naturally. Perhaps the Prairie States Forestry Project was an appropriate response to a period of soil erosion. That's a far cry from "controlling the weather." But we can't really make supermen of people who institute prudent coping mechanisms. When we hear our hero did the heroic, we're much more ready to pass it along as gospel than to question the tale's connection to reality.

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