The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 49.0°F | Partly Cloudy
Article Tools

Ladies and gentlemen, prefrosh and parents, I’d like to introduce you to what happens when the world’s premier research university and a representative of the world’s largest subsidizer of bad ideas join together to discuss hot air. I’m talking, of course, about Monday’s clean energy and global warming forum, hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative and featuring Rep. Ed Markey. Special thanks, of course, go to the 33-year veteran congressman for his brief and monotone addition to the summit.

As featured in The Tech on Tuesday, the colloquium stemmed from Markey’s proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, with its 650 pages of government suggestions and requirements on energy, carbon cap and trade, and global warming. The ACESA, like most government proposals now, hides its massive costs behind claims to, “create millions of new clean energy jobs,” and, “save consumers hundreds of billions of dollars in energy costs.”

What it can’t hide, however, are the jobs lost in established industry and the hundreds of billions in higher taxes that any cap and trade system implements. For a speaker who laments the tax breaks given to oil and other industries (often given for the explicit purpose of reducing the cost of energy, the exact opposite of what every clean energy policy proposes), Markey is remarkably willing to extend similar market distorting incentives to the politically vogue “green industry.”

I laud Congressman Markey for taking the perennially popular position of bashing oil companies, but I feel compelled to ask what the difference is between incentives for oil companies and incentives for ethanol or battery manufacturers. If we are merely using the tax code to favor the ideas that are politically trendy, we seriously underestimate the government’s capacity to make brilliantly stupid decisions. Witness the unintended consequences of subsidies and mandates for ethanol, which resulted in higher food prices and were a net environmental negative.

And yet, it seems science and common sense have no place when the federal government is debating ways to fritter away dollars to whatever research it deems appropriate. It’s not surprising then that our own President Hockfield lauded Markey, “as one of the most important advocates of responsible, farsighted energy and climate policy.” And yet, in his own speech ten minutes later, Markey boasted of his work on CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that place the desires of the UAW far ahead of increased fuel efficiency.

Congressman Markey, however, was careful to stress the “benefits” of his plan. His claim of reduced energy costs for consumers was the doctor’s equivalent of a spoonful of honey to help the medicine go down. Consumers and businesses, this legislation implies, don’t know what is good for them as far as the economy is concerned, and it is therefore the government’s job to prod them into action. And for the feds, increasing costs is the best method shy of calling in the National Guard to alter people’s behavior.

Let’s stop for a minute and think of the consequences of this concept. We have just been told that because citizens are not making the “right” decisions on their own, the government will now make those decisions for us. Evidently, the average American doesn’t have their energy and economic priorities ordered “correctly,” and that must be changed.

There are two ways to look at this: either Americans don’t consider the energy and climate situations to be the dire and pressing scenarios that Washington does, or they are just too stupid to ever be convinced. I’m content to side with the former, along with all of the other doubters of anthropogenic global warming.

Many disagree with me, and that’s fine. If they number enough to impose a carbon tax, then I’m fine with that too, as democracy will have spoken. However, cap and trade, and the proposals given by the ACESA, are ill-suited regardless of your views on energy and global warming. Democracy is fair and just only when every policy applies equally to the winners and the losers. A cap and trade system removes that justice by allowing the government to favor which industries are bad and which ones are good.

Moreover, if the government and members of the green lobby truly believe that their ideas call for immediate action, then they ought to be able to persuade the rest of the country to do the same. Unfortunately, stories regarding Al Gore’s copious energy use, among others, lead many, including myself, to believe that calls for green energy are simply an example of, “do as I say, not as I do.”

If, as we have always been told, “actions speak louder than words,” then I highly advise any supporters of Markey’s legislation to practice what they preach. Most Americans would love to see the day when the United States — as this bill proposes — cuts CO2 emmissions by 80% and becomes independent of all foreign petrol products. However, most Americans would also love a day when the IRS accepted grass clippings as a form of tax payment. Until those goals are painlessly adopted, Americans will continue to do what they see is best for them, and no amount of finger waving by important men in suits will change those incentives.

As President Hockfield said, “at MIT, we really like hard problems.” She knows of what she speaks. Throwing money after pet projects, however, is not a hard problem; it’s the public policy equivalent of writing your name on a blank piece of paper and congratulating yourself for finishing a problem set. While the 2009 Security Act punts resolving the problems inherent in Europe’s similar cap and trade scheme, it’s most serious failing stems from a lack of public support.

Even if fewer than half of Americans vote in elections, we all vote with our wallets. Overwhelmingly, we rank global warming and energy issues as low priorities. Washington and Congressman Markey would do well to keep that in mind before feeding us our daily dose of wind power and environmental guilt.