Mr. Rifkin's Pipe Dream

Mr. Rifkin's Pipe Dream

Miller Op-ed in Tech Central Station
September 28, 2004

Professional worrier Jeremy Rifkin's pronouncements always remind me of the characterization by one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas B. Reed of his political opponents, "They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge."  Rifkin's assertion that Americans' consumption of beef causes domestic violence were absurd.  So were his claims that biotechnology threatens "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust," and that a small-scale field trial of a gene-spliced soil bacterium could change weather patterns and disrupt air-traffic control.He's at it again in a completely different realm in a new book, "The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream" (Tarcher/Penguin, 435 pages, $25.95). As the title implies, its thesis is, "When one considers what makes a people great and what constitutes a better way of life, Europe is beginning to surpass <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />America."Before tackling this new attempt at redefining reality in an unreal way, it is useful to consider briefly Rifkin's previously published views on other subjects.  In "Beyond Beef," he asserts that "the statistics linking domestic violence and quarrels over beef are both revealing and compelling."  He believes that men use meat as "a means of conditioning women to accept a subservient status in society."  The evidence?  He quotes a woman battered by her husband: "It would start off with him being angry over a trivial thing like cheese instead of meat on a sandwich."…Oh.Rifkin's views on biotechnology, his preoccupation for many years, are no less wacky.  His decades-long predictions of doom ignore the scientific consensus that the newest techniques of biotechnology are essentially a refinement, or extension, of earlier ones applied for centuries, and that gene transfer or modification by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer risk.  Like robotics, fiber optics and supercomputers, the new biotechnology is no more than a widely applicable tool.Moreover, crops made with the techniques of the new biotechnology have for almost a decade been cultivated on more than 100 million acres annually around the world. They have drastically reduced soil erosion and applications of chemical pesticides, and Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients—all without a single documented untoward event. Yet, Rifkin has crusaded relentlessly to banish currently marketed biotech foods and pharmaceuticals, and to keep future products from being developed and tested, all the while distorting and making up facts to suit his purposes.The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, by his own admission, tried to be sympathetic to Rifkin's views but was overwhelmed by the "extremism" and "lack of integrity" in Rifkin's anti-biotechnology diatribe, "Algeny." Gould concluded that Rifkin "shows no understanding of the norms and procedures of science."In "The European Dream," Rifkin demonstrates that his ineptness extends to political science and economics. He believes that at the same time that "the American Spirit is tiring and languishing in the past, a new European Dream is being born" -- an ethos that "emphasizes community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global cooperation over the unilateral exercise of power." Rifkin is convinced that before long, however, overworked and materialistic Americans will soon realize the superiority of and embrace the European ideal of "working to live" instead of "living to work," and that they will exchange American self-reliance for Old World groupthink.It is true that already-underachieving European workers constantly press for even shorter workweeks and longer vacations, and that by contrast, Americans relish and feel a sense of accomplishment in work.  (Witness the proliferation of laptops, PDAs, pagers and cell phones among vacationing Americans.)  But this ethic is part of the very fabric of our national heritage.  In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson opined that his proudest achievement had been to fashion a meritocratic United States in which "a new aristocracy of virtue and talent" replaced the old aristocracy of hubris, privilege and indolence. As long as we Americans are able to reap rewards that are commensurate with our labors—and can keep taxation and socialism at bay—we are unlikely to relinquish that ethic.Rifkin is the master of oversimplification and overstatement.  His portrayal of a homogenous, harmonious Europe is inaccurate, as the split over policy toward Iraq clearly illustrates.  A solid majority of European countries officially support the U.S. position, although France and Germany are in the minority. There is also wide disparity in public opinion: polls show that in the U.K. and the Netherlands there is significant support for the U.S. intervention, while in France and Spain there is widespread opposition.As he is wont to do, Rifkin frequently invokes flawed assumptions and "facts" that are made up and contradicted by data.  Contrary to his prognostications, the evidence suggests that if there is evolution toward greater congruence between the European and American Weltanschauungen, it will be the result of the Europeans moving in our direction, rather than the opposite.  Recently, major German labor unions have agreed to work longer hours without additional pay, and the leaders of France, Germany and other countries are beginning to acknowledge that their profligate social welfare programs are unsustainable. In stark rebuttal to Rifkin's paean to European society and institutions, European countries and their Union are, in comparison to the United States, in dire straits.  They have aging populations and low birth rates, their productivity is in decline, and their economies are stagnant. Everything in Europe is not on the decline, however: Stultifying taxation, over-regulation, obstruction of free markets, unemployment, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Semitism, and envy of the American economic miracle are alive and well. Finally, Rifkin is an adviser to the president of the European Union, and it should come as no surprise that he fawns on the hand that feeds him. Stephen Jay Gould dismissed Rifkin's "Algeny" as "a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship," concluding that he had not "ever read a shoddier work." But then he had not read "The European Dream."<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />