11/13/2006 07:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Samuelson's Low Opinion of his Country

Robert Samuelson is fixated on pushing a simple point about global warming: we can't do anything about it.

Like so many pundits pushing right-wing talking points around economics, he pitches this stance as a kind of brave, hard-headed realism, in contrast to all those other deluded fools who think we can solve problems. Why anyone would want to spend his time on this planet explicitly and openly fighting progress on the biggest challenge humanity faces is beyond me, I'll confess. But to each his own.

I wrote about his defeatism in an earlier column, and now he"s at it again. After some unsubstantiated bashing of the Stern report, he lists three reasons why the problem is hopeless.

With today's technologies, we don't know how to cut greenhouse gases in politically and economically acceptable ways.

This is ... what's the word? ... bullshit.

An argument could be made that we don't know how to cut GHGs enough in "acceptable" ways, but as phrased, this is just incorrect. There are literally hundreds of things we could start doing immediately to cut emissions in ways acceptable to the American public, from boosting efficiency standards for cars and appliances to investing in public transit infrastructure to upgrading the electricity grid to removing fossil-fuel subsidies. These things are "unacceptable" to certain narrow financial interests that have undue influence over the political process, but there's plenty of public support waiting for decent political leadership.

The bigger error is to conceive the limitations of what's currently politically and economically acceptable as fixed and immutable. Things change. Public opinion evolves. Political coalitions shift. Industries wax and wane. And oh yeah, the weather is changing. Does Samuelson really want us to accept that we have no choice but to passively trundle toward catastrophe because our political elites are too corrupt and cowardly to sack up?

In rich democracies, policies that might curb greenhouse gases require politicians and the public to act in exceptionally "enlightened" (read: "unrealistic") ways.

I guess he does want us to accept our fate with resignation. Our selfish short-sightedness is his lodestar -- all else revolves around it. What an exceptionally low estimation of America Samuelson must have.

Here's where the right-wing mind really reveals itself:

Even if rich countries cut emissions, it won't make much difference unless poor countries do likewise -- and so far, they've refused because that might jeopardize their economic growth and poverty-reduction efforts.

This is the pinched moral calculus of an adolescent. "I'll do the right thing if Billy will too." The world looks to America for leadership -- still, even today, even in our current state of moral and geopolitical rot. We can still lead. The American people crave it. They crave a purpose larger than themselves. They crave purpose. They crave issues larger than the petty divisions in which we've all been mired for the whole of this wretched century.

Think Samuelson's argument through. Catastrophe is on the way -- enormous, historical suffering and economic loss. We could avoid the worst of it with wise action today. But Samuelson and his truculent ideological fellow travelers refuse to go first, even though we created the $%@! problem. Rather than let Billy get more candy than us, we're willing to drive over the cliff.

I don't get these people.