While President Obama was in Washington speaking to the the joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, I had a chance to hear former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich speak before a similar sized but decidedly less “A list” crowd at St. Mary’s College in California.
Both expressed concerns over the economy, oil dependence, and carbon, but have very different approaches to the issues. After pointing out that this is our “Sputnik moment”, Obama channeled JFK, and suggested funding clean energy as one of the “Apollo projects of our time.”
As he said “We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies…so instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”
Reich’s approach on the other hand is based more on giving clean energy a boost by putting market forces to work – government regulation rather than government spending. He suggested a carbon tax, reflecting the many social costs of fossil fuels (and believe me, there are many.) The higher priced fossil fuels would create more demand for alternative energy, accellerating both investment and the scale neccessary to achieve the stretch goal the President set of 80% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.
While the Apollo project did get a man on the moon – an unbelievable accomplishment even now – the cost and complexity of the program were enormous. The “brute force”/ big spending approach used by Nasa didn’t lead to a long term practical or commercially viable space program. Ask about the results, and Nasa points to the many ancellary innovations resulting from the $25 Billion program (1970 dollars) , which include everything from programmable pacemakers to dustbusters. I like to think that those innovations would have come along without the Apollo program, and would have been funded by industry rather than tax payers. The space shuttle is also considered by many to be unsustainably expensive… another technological cul de sac.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s private Space X startup is approaching space flight with a philosophy that “simplicity, low-cost, and reliability can go hand in hand.” Similarly, the goal should not just be to throw money at clean energy, but to create technology paths that are commercially sound and cost effective.
Funding is also an issue. When JFK proposed to put a man on the moon, the US debt was 40% of annual GDP. With the figure hovering near 100% now, it’s hard to imagine funding a new ‘space race’ in clean energy. In contrast, Reich’s plan actually generates income. While the cost of the tax would be borne by the public, his idea would be to give back the income to lower income wage earners in the form of earned income tax credits, increasing income, expanding middlle class spending power, and pulling us out of the recession.
The President spoke of a future with high speed rail and electric cars criss crossing the country. But it’s an exciting vision only if the public can afford to ride them.
Original photo CC license http://www.flickr.com/photos/bdburton/ modified by ClimatePath. All rights reserved