Posted by: Bruce Allen | February 10, 2008

Dear Gotta Bee in My Bonnet in Bladensburg

Dear Mr. BruAl–

What do you think is the salient difference between today’s Americans and the Americans of the mid-2oth century, the so-called Greatest Generation?

–Gotta Bee in My Bonnet in Bladensburg

Dear Gotta Bee–

We gotta say you are one clever linguist, sticking that “salient” right there in the middle of your kinda ho-hum question. It just so happens that we have the same bee in our bonnet during this primary season, and feel the need to vent.  Please allow us to oversimplify.

In this country, every generation has had its Problems of Daily Living (PDL) and its Epochal Issues (EI). PDLs–raising kids, paying bills, finding good work–are what life is, in our own time. Epochal Issues are the biggies, those which alter the course of American, and thus human, existence. Epochal issues for the Greatest Generation included two world wars and a global depression.

Let’s assume, for the love of the blog, that the Epochal Issues for today’s generation of Americans are global warming, energy consumption, and federal entitlement programs.

The difference today is in how we as a nation are responding to our EIs.

The GGs looked at the their three Epochal Issues and said, in effect, “This here is a mess. It’s going to take some cleaning up. We’d best stop what we’re doing and start cleaning.” They acknowledged the problem. Common sense told them that sacrifices would be required to fix the problem. They then made the sacrifices. In doing so they defeated fascism twice and emerged from the Depression with the makings of the strongest economic engine the world has ever seen.

Today’s Average Joe is a product of Reaganomics, MTV, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the religious right, Nancy Grace, Paris Hilton and the internet. Collectively, the Joes form the howling mob of the semi-informed, the mob that has, in the last decade, shouted down every politician with a grain of political courage, leaving us with today’s gritless assortment. Today’s EIs are less obvious than were those of yesterday.  Joe’s sad little take on today’s EIs goes something like this:

1. Global warming is the liberal imagination at work. There’s these long term trends, y’see, that have been going on since before man walked on two legs. Six or seven billion tons a year of additional man-made CO2 isn’t going to make any real difference. Anyone dishing that slop is soft in the head and fundamentally anti-capitalistic. A person like that would vote for Hillary, for God’s sake. Science will come up with something. If you believe in global warming, you probably believe in the tooth fairy, too.

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2. Energy consumption is pretty much my business. Reducing the use of fossil fuels is a good idea, but I really need my Escalade. If I can afford to fill the tank I will fill the tank, early and often. Science will come up with something. Until then I can choose my Escalade and contribute to The Sierra Club. (Gasoline wouldn’t be nearly as expensive if we got rid of all the taxes they put on it.)

3. Don’t even THINK about touching my Social Security or making MediCare more expensive. If you do, I will sign a petition to have you impeached. Congress will come up with something.

And that’s it, in a nutshell. A combination of abject denial, vacant self-interest, and a not-my-problem mentality. If Average Joe could just pull himself away from Bill O’Reilly for an evening, he could educate himself on these issues, and perhaps become more willing to accept the kinds of sacrifices that will be necessary to avert a global calamity originating in the U.S. during this century.

To address these EIs, conventional wisdom would suggest prompting the markets to:

reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by making it relatively more expensive to emit greenhouse gases and profitable not to emit them;

reduce gasoline consumption, by making it relatively more expensive to burn gasoline; and

rationalize federal entitlement programs with a gradual increase in taxes, means testing for recipients, and reduced benefits across the board until the programs are financially sound again.

Any politician espousing these views today would be immediately and ingloriously crucified by the aforementioned mob. Wouldn’t stand a chance. Saving the world from itself is not a popular stance today.

Imagine the political courage of the President, man or woman, who could stand up for his or her first State of the Union address and announce an Apollo program for climate change and energy conservation, and a separate Apollo program to attack the entitlements issue once and for all. Taking off the blinders and taking a cold, hard look at what is obviously happening all around us, but which even educated people wish to deny on the basis of ideology.

I challenge you, if you’ve read this far, to read Thermageddon, by Robert Hunter, the founder of Greenpeace. It may change your opinions on global warming, and its foreseeable impacts on our grandchildren and beyond. It will be a different world.

The entitlements issue is basically an econ problem. Like most big econ problems, it is sensitive to its own assumptions, which are political. Once the political conviction becomes available, entitlements could be put back into equilibrium within 10 years.

Global warming and energy issues are more than just math problems. One of Hunter’s theses is that we have evolved into a species that is very adept at “protecting” itself from other groups of the species, i.e., making war on our neighbors, but incapable of joining with those other groups to protect itself against a common threat. If I were the King of America, here’s three things I’d do today:

  • Establish a domestic market for carbon emission credits, and cap the market at current levels. Over time, drive the cap down. This will enable companies to buy and sell pollution credits, while reducing, in absolute terms, greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Once the market is up and running in this country, embark on a mission to have every country in the world adopt the same model. Including China and India.
  • Add $1 in tax to the price of a gallon of gasoline, and add another in, say, two years. Use the money to fund research into alternative fuels, conservation measures, etc.
  • Establish a revenue-neutral program of tax incentives and taxes aimed at increasing the average MPG of the American automobile. If you purchase a car that gets, say, 35 miles to the gallon, you receive a check from the Feds for $1000. If you purchase a car that gets 12 miles to the gallon, you send the Feds a tax check for $2500. Tweak the payments until the program is revenue neutral, and then ratchet up the MPG thresholds over time. By 2020 the average car in the US could get 40 or 50 mpg. (I first had this idea published by the editor of the Washington Post in 1974.)

I have no illusions about any of this getting done before it is too late. My family and I are going to Alaska this summer to see the glaciers while they still exist. I have shared my thoughts with my children, with no certainty as to how even they will respond. It is on this subject that I pray more than any other.

In closing, dear Gotta Bee, I have previously stated in this space my belief that 90% of us are hilljacks. As hilljacks, we reserve the right to make fun of things we don’t understand, and we often fail to recognize life-threatening situations. That’s how we roll.

BruAl

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