BIG IDEAS NEED BIG GOVERNMENT
By Adam Simpson
Senator Rand Paul, of the now defunct Republican Presidential bid, wants a government “so small you can barely see it.” For the life of me, I don’t know what that means. But it’s not as if the pernicious idea doesn’t try its damnedest. One of the oft-repeated assertions of the American right, from “libertarians” like Paul to mainstream Republican establishmentarians, is embodied in President Ronald Reagan’s pronouncement that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Maybe that statement made sense in the context of 1981, but how does this idea still have legs 35 years later given the immense challenges and opportunities facing the United States--and indeed the world at large?
One immense challenge in particular is that of climate change. In December, world leaders convened in Paris under UN auspices to hammer out a revised agreement to collectively respond to climate change by reducing carbon emissions. The aim is to keep the climate from rising beyond the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, the accord may not be good enough--it’s non-binding agreement, and an independent review concludes that the deal will allow a climate of 2.7C above industrial levels. Pushing the climate to these levels could lead to a catastrophic tipping point, the signs of which we’re already seeing. The 2015-2016 winter was abnormally warm, and arctic sea ice is at a record low.
It’s not that human societies don’t know how to reduce carbon emissions--that in itself is a pretty straightforward process. But short-term political and economic obstacles stand in the way. Anti-coal? You can’t win an election in West Virginia with that attitude. Want to transition the US economy to renewable energy? Your constituent’s pensions and most of the major banks are heavily invested in petroleum, and most of the nation’s energy grid is powered by fossil fuels. The supposed free market, the apparent silver bullet of the American right from Reagan to Rand and beyond, is compromised. There are no doubt exceptions, investors who pursue high-risk, low-reward green technologies; individuals who consciously lower reduce their footprint at considerable cost. But as it stands today, without aggressive amendment to the economic, political, and social incentive structures, we’re fated to push in the wrong direction.
Beyond the existential crisis of climate change are a host of other problems--many of which we’re well aware of but fail to address. Consider the year 2050: the global population will be bursting with 10 billion people. We’ll need to double food output with less land and less water. As if that’s not complicated enough we have to confront these problems while transitioning the energy in the global economy toward renewable and sustainable energy. A more sustainable agriculture is unlikely to be developed by the factory farming conglomerates that dominate agribusiness today.
Then there’s the failing infrastructure of the United States. We’ve seen numerous reports tap water loaded with lead and bridges deteriorating across the country. But additionally, infrastructure is a key driver in a nation’s economic growth, so it’s a wonder the free market hasn’t stepped in revitalize America’s ports, energy, and aviation infrastructure--all of which are graded by the American Society of Civil Engineers at C, D+, and D respectively. Beyond that there are the big projects needed to solidify tomorrow’s economy. Only 25% of Americans have access to fiber-optic internet while 17% lack access to broadband (in rural America 53% lack access to broadband). High speed rail projects, which could create millions of jobs and add billions to the economy, remain in the limbo of cost-projections and bickering over federal and state funding.
But let’s talk cost. It’s certainly true that high speed rail is expensive--Amtrak estimates that a Northeast corridor running from Boston to New York to Washington could cost approximately $150 billion. The amount is nothing to scoff at, but consider that $3.09 trillion was lost in the previous decade to corporate tax avoidance and that the final tally of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is approximately $4-6 trillion. So, assuming the the project costs twice what Amtrak estimates, we could have paid for 23 Northeast corridors with more policy planning foresight.
Of course the private sector has a role in bringing the United States into the 21st century and beyond. But the deeply ingrained short-term, profit-centric thought pattern of corporations and businesses demands a government willing to intervene in the marketplace to steer such decisions. Without new incentives they’re not going to independently invest in advanced, sustainable infrastructure. The future demands a leadership with clear, communicated goals and a mandate to pursue them. What does small government mean for such ambitions? It means cutting federal funding for science and technology research. It means gutting social safety nets to pay for tax cuts. It means prioritizing today’s profit over tomorrow’s prosperity.
Given these challenges, it’s imperative that the government be more than just visible. It must articulate a vision. Reading into the issues I’ve described above--climate change in particular--it’s easy to become mired in fatalistic pessimism that our country can only whither for the whims of shareholders and elites. While it’s true that failing to meet these challenges could prove catastrophic, it’s equally true that they could prove transformational. What the American people need--and indeed the global community--is leadership that can advance positive alternatives to the doom and gloom of our current political debate.