THE BLOG
06/22/2006 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fluorescent bulbs and the Revolution

savingtheworld.pngThanks to Al Gore, now everyone knows the planet is doomed if we don't take IMMEDIATE ACTION. What kind of action? Start using fluorescent light bulbs. Drive a Prius. Encourage your mayor to put solar panels on city hall. Yeah, right.

Al's a hero for what he's accomplished over the last several weeks. And it's not his fault that there are no credible solutions to global warming on the table. I blame academia. Rare leaders like Gore, who are willing to address the biggest problems, have been left solutionless by a two-generation moratorium on big-picture, long-term thinking among our greatest economists and social thinkers.

I saw Barack Obama hit the same brick wall a few weeks ago speaking on global warming. He started out saying, "We need a mobilization of resources on the scale of WWII." I was ready to enlist in the Obama army. But when it came to specifics, he too had to default to fluorescent bulbs, Priuses, etc....

This problem spans virtually all big issues: in John Edwards' search for real solutions to poverty, academia offers him little more than higher education subsidies and mixed income housing. On health care, it's just as bad. I once witnessed a room full of U.S. Senators alternately beg and berate a panel of top health care policy experts for solutions they could tell their constituents about. After 45 minutes the experts had said nothing convincing, or even intelligible.

This affliction is not limited to mainstream Democratic politicians. On global warming, the Left's biggest, boldest idea is the Apollo Alliance. It calls for $30 billion in new investment each year for ten years for renewable energy and industrial retooling. Can $30 billion per year fundamentally transform our society? No. Thirty billion dollars is 0.0024% of U.S. GDP -- or, to put it another way, about 70 seconds of the national workday. Think about that on a personal level: you can't keep your house clean in 70 seconds a day, let alone transform your life.

But let's go back to Obama's WWII reference. World War II truly was transformational for our society. From 1942 to 1945 the U.S. devoted a full third of GDP to the war. Domestic car production ground to a halt as the auto industry was retooled to produce jeeps and tanks. Hundreds of thousands volunteered to give their lives. People at home sacrificed by conserving materials and fuel. The wealthy paid far higher taxes. And millions of women joined the workforce for the first time in their lives. In other words, America did whatever it took. We certainly didn't win World War II by taking a few minutes out of the day -- in one way or another the war was the primary economic activity of virtually every American.

The economics of the war effort looked a lot like central planning at times, but private capital was rewarded lavishly for its cooperation, and big business emerged healthy, free and more profitable than ever on the other side of the war. Furthermore, the massive infusion of capital modernized the American economy as a whole and laid the foundation for 50 years of exceptional growth.

So why aren't we talking about a mobilization of that scale to save the planet? Or to end extreme poverty? Or to carry out a Marshal Plan for the 4/5ths of the Earth that needs one? I can guess the primary response: "Americans will pay for war, but not for all that good stuff." But go back and look at the history: Americans didn't want to join World War II either. There was fierce grassroots opposition by right-wingers who didn't see fascism as entirely negative, and broad and deep hesitance among Americans who felt Europe should sort out its own messes. (Put Arthur Miller's "Focus" on your Netflix list to see a graphic depiction.)

It took extraordinary leadership to convince America to accept that extraordinary mission. But once we did, there was no stopping us. It could be the same with global warming and the other potentially show-stopping threats of this new century. But FDR had something on his side that our current leaders do not. There was an intellectual and institutional consensus about what it meant to fight a world war -- about the scale and scope of it. It was accepted that economic rules could be changed, industries rearranged, and people asked to make huge sacrifices.

Today, however, we are bound by an "Inaction Consensus" that is shared by virtually every political, business and academic leader -- a consensus that would see the oceans boil before allowing society to intervene structurally in private economic affairs. This consensus is shared by conservative and liberal thinkers alike -- at least all the "respectable" ones.

It should come as no surprise that conservative thinkers oppose any kind of rearranging of economic interests by society. But this is just as true of the liberal members of the global Inaction Consensus. Liberals believe it's OK for society to create the conditions for economic change, but even progressive heroes such as Krugman and Riech agree with their conservative colleagues that society should not try to intentionally direct change. The difference between liberals and conservatives in economic thinking is a matter of emphasis, not fundamental principles. The term "liberal" began as a label for free market economic thinking and has never shifted from that foundation. Go back and read one of Conservatism's canonical texts, F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom. You'll find that Milton Friedman's favorite author favored a strong welfare state, socialized medicine, universal public education and heavy regulation of industry. The only thing he disallowed was tampering with private economic activity on a structural level.

But as the polar ice caps plop off like ice cubes into a drink on a summer day, shouldn't we reexamine that economic orthodoxy?

We need a real plan to save the planet: one that will replace all oil burning engines; one that will retool the world's entire industrial infrastructure; one that will achieve all that in ten years; and one that is impossible within the confines of the Inaction Consensus.

Is there anyone, anywhere working on that kind of plan? An economics professor of mine, who comes from a tradition of economic thought (fringe in the U.S.) that thinks big picture, says even his grad students have shied away from the big-picture and long-term for decades. Why? Because they can't get funding to work on those kinds of topics, and even worry that working on such topics will make it hard for them to find teaching positions.

What's the solution? Well, I hear that a bunch of big donors are pouring millions into liberal think tanks. They are trying to catch up to their conservative counterparts who decades ago set up paradigm-shifting engines such as the Cato, Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes. These donors are currently putting their dollars into fairly middle-of-the-road liberal institutions. And they should absolutely continue to fund those. But they need to fund some radical efforts as well. The donors need to notice that the conservative think tanks they so admire changed the terms of the national debate by rejecting the terms as they found them.

What we need are high-paying, resource-rich homes for talented, serious economists and other thinkers who want to work outside the Inaction Consensus -- who want to work on truly Big Plans to save humanity. If the oceans really do start to rise -- or some other global catastrophe comes true -- then those plans will turn out be a lot less politically unacceptable than they appear today. And Obama 2016 will have something better to talk about than fluorescent bulbs.

(PS: Any of you donors out there who want to work on something like this, here's where to find me: zackexley@gmail.com.)