One way I like to get a rise out of people when getting into a political discussion between those not of like mind is to assert that 50 years from now Jimmy Carter will be hailed as the best American President of the era encompassing the second half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. Fans of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush find that statement especially galling.
Now I am quick to add some caveats. I am a partisan Democrat but I do like to be reality based. I don't actually believe Carter was a great President. I liked him as President and generally approved of his policies. Yet even I recognize he really was not all that effective despite coming into office post-Watergate with huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Anyone who has read Ted Kennedy's autobiography is familiar with some of the issues Carter had with the Beltway Democrats and why he failed to get along with them to get a lot accomplished.
There is one area though where Carter really shone. And that area becomes increasingly apparent and important with each passing day.
Join me below the Orange Kossicle for an explanation.
His biggest success was in the area of energy policy.
The Carter Administration is the one period of my life where I believe our country actually had a comprehensive energy policy. Much of this was a reaction to the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and 1974. The embargo was in retaliation for America's support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and some of its neighbors, primarily Egypt and Syria. The embargo lead to shortages, long gas lines, price spikes. Jimmy Carter, however, saw it as a wake-up call and opportunity for the nation.
In his plan there was an emphasis to conserve energy complete with inducements and tax credits for private individuals and businesses. Homes and businesses were insulated. Scrubbers were put into smokestacks to recover lost energy and reduce pollution. Gas efficiency standards were increased for vehicles.
The other side of the policy was to spur domestic development of alternative, sustainable sources of energy. There was a recognition that domestic oil production had peaked and would never achieve the output of the past. There was also a recognition that reliance on fossil fuels carried steep costs in terms of the environment, public health and national security. Relying on oil meant being dependent on foreign oil no matter how much you might "drill, baby, drill".
The government provided seed money for research projects for solar, wind and geothermal energy. News stories abounded of the efforts and trials, some big, some small, in these areas. Solar panels were even installed on the roof of the White House.
All of this of course was abruptly halted once Ronald Reagan defeated Carter and assumed the Presidency. Saint Ronnie worshiped the free market and stated that the wisdom of the free market would determine our energy policy, not bureaucrats in Washington. It didn't hurt that OPEC began dropping its prices around this time so that the average person felt less urgency around supporting programs to find alternate fuels.
The tax incentives for business and individuals to conserve energy were discontinued. The seed money for research and development into alternative energy sources were cut off or severely cut back. Reagan even made a point of removing the solar panels from the White House roof.
This is a classic example of the limits of the free market as a tool for setting policy. Obviously the best long-term interest of the country was to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and develop home-grown clean renewable domestic sources. However, fossil fuels had been the primary energy source for decades, heck close to a hundred years. An entire infrastructure had been developed and was already in place for the production and distribution of fossil fuels whether it be coal, oil or natural gas. On a per unit cost basis there was no comparison at that point, fossil fuels were cheaper and easier. The wisdom of the free market sent us merrily on the path to hell.
So where are we at today? President Obama with his budget and recovery package of 2009 attempted to boost America's position in research and development of renewable energy sources, an area where we are quickly being outpaced by the Germans and Chinese. So almost 30 years after the last big effort at developing alternatives to fossil fuels we see a renewed effort. A lost generation.
Meanwhile all around us we see the impacts of climate change: droughts in some areas, massive flooding in others, disappearing Arctic ice and tundra, disappearing beaches, increased severity of storms, and the list goes on. Water is becoming an ever more precious commodity. And this is only 2013.
And with Syria in the news lately and the possibility of the United States becoming further entangled in yet another Middle East conflict, we wonder why we are always being dragged into this arena. If we didn't have such a thirst for oil would we be as concerned about Iraq or Iran or Syria or Middle East stability?
So when the next generation is fighting wars over water, wondering why everyone in the Middle East still seems to want to attack us, dealing with the fallout from a radically changing environment and its impacts on agriculture and public health, they may someday open their history books to a discussion of the Carter Administration and sit there dumbstruck. They will at first be amazed and then an anger will well up inside them.
"You fools! You had the answer! The blueprint was there and in place! And you tore it up and went back to burning fossil fuels like drunken sailors on shore leave! And this is what you left us! Thanks for nothing!"
And we'll see how those generations will rate Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan.
Note: originally posted today on Views On Brews.