I just heard what I think might be one of the most creative policy ideas of the year, and it came from - of all people - Click and Clack on Car Talk.
I believe it was Clack's idea, to be specific, and it went as follows: now that gas prices have come down to close to half of what they were just a couple months ago, raise the gasoline tax by 50 cents a gallon. Use the extra $50 to 100 billion in revenue building a national high-speed light rail system, and - here's the clever part - hire the Big Three automakers to build it.
It's smart, it's sensible, it's bold, it's visionary, and it's something we could pass in the first 100 days of Obama's presidency.
For the last eight years, an idea like this has been unthinkable in the Bush White House, and not just because it violates not one but two of the GOP's sacred diktats - never raise a red penny in taxes and protect the domestic market for oil at all costs. An idea like this has also been unthinkable because it is predicated upon an assumption that does not compute in the Republican mainframe. For decades, Republican intellectuals and policymakers have pitted what's good for the environment against what's supposedly good for the economy. For Republican tacticians and corporate lobbyists, whatever the issue, it's always a zero-sum game: protection of the spotted owl versus jobs for loggers in the Northwest; fuel efficiency standards versus the survival of American car companies; combating global warming versus expanding the GDP. Since most Americans consider themselves environmentalists but few put environmental problems at the top of their list of priorities, Republicans could always play anxieties against each other, wedging environmentalists against economic progressives, "tree huggers" against working families. The tactic has been successful for so long that Republican ideologues simply cannot imagine a world in which environmental and economic health dovetail. "The eternal tension of environment vs. economy has been largely pooh-poohed by environmentalists in recent years of high-flying economic performance," argued The American Enterprise Institute's Kenneth P. Green in a Washington Post opinion piece earlier this year, "but it will not be as easily waved away with the U.S. standing at the threshold of a recession and with the U.S. automotive sector in serious competitive trouble." In his critique of Obama's energy plan, Green states it as a simple matter of fact that "as for creating green jobs, 'job creation' is simply a myth." He will keep arguing this point until he's blue in the face - with Exxon money funding AEI's research, his job depends upon it.
This kind of ideological myopia is what has accounted for the rapid dumbing down of GOP talking points over the last few years. Newt Gingrich was full of bad ideas, but at least they were new ones. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a coherent Republican proposal for rebuilding New Orleans, negotiating the credit crisis, keeping Americans in their homes, providing healthcare to the uninsured, saving the auto industry or almost anything else that doesn't boil down to cutting taxes and letting the magical market do its work.
The fact of the matter is that we are both in an economic crisis and an environmental one, and we don't have the luxury of picking between them. We have to come up with solutions that address both. Last week on Meet the Bloggers, Green For All's Van Jones described his vision for retooling the economy to meet the environmental challenges of the present and future. Like Clack's, the idea is straightforward and elegant: transition our post-industrial, service sector economy into a green economy, and provide the green-collar jobs (weatherizing buildings, constructing wind farms, etc.) the transition generates to poor inner city communities. It's an idea that will likely find no small number of advocates in Hilda Solis' Labor Department.
One of the most important consequences of Obama's victory last month is that it has made the unthinkable thinkable again. As Milton Friedman advised the conservative movement, it is necessary to have ideas "lying around," to be available for that moment when "the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." The Republicans have forgotten their mentor's counsel. Progressives have not. In the early days of the new administration, it's time to make the thinkable inevitable.