What Might Have Been

It’s human nature, I think, to wonder about alternatives to events as they actually unfolded, or the results of pursuing different paths at key moments in life. “What might have been, if only…” and so forth. I get into those moods now and then myself.

The other day, I was cleaning a few things out of the house my mom has lived in since the 1950s when I stumbled on this (above) antique campaign bumper sticker affixed to the garage wall.

Now, I don’t assume all my readers know ancient California history, so here’s the background.

In 1965, the governor of California was a Democrat named Pat Brown (current governor Jerry’s dad, by the way). The very first Republican to announce his candidacy for his party’s nomination to run against Brown was Laughlin Waters, a man who had a lot going for him as a candidate.

Waters was a legitimate World War 2 hero, having led a rifle company onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He was a universally acknowledged person of intellect and substance. He was a brilliant lawyer, well-experienced in private practice and as US Attorney for Los Angeles, a huge and important position. He was a well-regarded public servant, having served three terms in the state legislature.

And, as I can personally attest (his wife was a lifelong friend of my parents), he was a very nice guy off the clock. A solid storyteller. A real, honest-to-God family man. Funny in social settings. Nice as the day is long.

Here’s what he didn’t have: a particularly photogenic face (his photo, above), jump-off-the-page charisma, star power, famous friends.

Pat Brown was a popular governor. It was going to take just the right Republican to have even a chance of beating him in the general election. And, in the end, California’s Republicans went in a direction that very much represented a break from their party’s history.

Their eventual nominee was no war hero (he’d sat out World War 2 safely stateside), no genius lawyer, no public servant (aside from his career in the arts, his only real grown-up work experience was serving as his small union’s president). But he had in spades the precise qualities Waters lacked: prettiness, attractiveness, connections.  And they turned out to be what enough Californians wanted to vote for in the general election to unseat Pat Brown.

So was born our current political era, in which American voters support candidates for their attractiveness over their substance. And, too, was born a national political career for the man who forced Laughlin Waters out of the race, Ronald Reagan.

Time For a New One

No human being who ever lived has been held so highly by Republicans as Ronald Reagan; he is often spoken of as one small step below the Divine. Republican candidates fight for the right to be thought of as his philosophical successor. And by that term, they mean the champion of smaller, more decentralized government and lower taxes.

But that’s the Reagan myth, not the Reagan reality.

As the actual historical record clearly shows, they couldn’t be further from the truth. Reagan grew government and raised taxes more than any president who preceded him.

Under the administration of Jimmy Carter, Reagan’s immediate predecessor, the federal government spent 27.9% of GNP. Reagan’s administration spent 28.7%. Over the course of his 8 years in the White House, Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party’s patron saint of limited government, increased federal spending by 60% in nominal dollars.

Candidate Reagan pledged to abolish the Department of Education. Instead, spending by the Department of Education more than doubled during the Reagan administration. Social Security spending increased, as did spending on farm programs, Medicare, and so-called entitlement programs (from $197.1 billion in 1981 to $477 billion in 1987).

Today’s Republicans, it seems, can’t be bothered with such bothersome facts. Reagan himself said: “We’re not attempting to cut either spending or taxing levels below that which we already have.”

The result of Reagan administration spending was unprecedented debt. Reagan tripled the national debt (from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion) during his years in office. He also grew the civilian federal workforce by close to 250,000.

Candidate Reagan promised to cut personal income and business taxes. President Reagan didn’t. Tax increases put into place between 1982 and 1989, equaled $1.5 trillion. Hardly the image today’s Republicans present.

When it comes to the Reagan legacy, Republicans, it seems, would rather cling to the myth than accept the facts.

If Republicans want to continue flogging themselves as the party of smaller government and lower taxes, I’d say it’s time for the Grand Old Party to find itself a new idol.

Hope for Renewables? Even the Slightest?

There may be a model for progress in renewable energy from a somewhat unexpected source.

I starting working seriously in what was then called alternative energy (now,most often, renewables) in the early 1980s. It was a moment of optimism or, more accurately, the end of a moment of optimism, some would say foolish optimism, about weaning western economies off complete reliance on fossil fuels. There were very advantageous tax credits for investment in non-fossil energy, like solar, wind, cogeneration and hydroelectric. The federal and state governments, even many local governments, were investing directly in projects, some pilots and some to full-scale.

As a staff member of a state agency in North Carolina in the 1980s, I remember running some financial analyses in which 55 percent of investment costs in a certain cogeneration project were returned in the form of first-year tax credits, both federal and state. Operating under those conditions, few projects were rejected. That was good, in a way, because a lot of generation capacity and infrastructure was built and a lot of new technologies were developed. But, of course, it wasn’t completely good, because some of those projects were not, as it turned out, the best use of resources.

In any event, there was significant interest in non-fossil energy development, there was substantial growth, new enterprises, significant investment, and projections of much more of the same.

Many of these non-fossil energy programs had started with characteristic super-seriousness in the Carter administration following the ‘moral equivalent of war’ speech to the nation, but fell into disrepute with the election of Ronald Reagan and were either unfunded or allowed to expire. And that, as they say, was pretty much that. Renewables have continued to grow in importance and scale, but at nowhere near the size or pace once forecasted.

In the intervening thirty years, or so, we in America have engaged in mostly ineffective and unproductive, finger-pointing, blaming and shaming Kabuki theater that passes for debate hereabouts. Renewable supporters pretty much directly accuse the mainstream oil and gas industry of orchestrating a money-fueled conspiracy to perpetuate our addiction to fossil fuels. Supporters of the fossil energy industry, including many government officials who still count on ‘big oil’ for contributions to both campaign and constituent economies, complain about undue environmental restrictions which prevent the country from effectively employing its domestic resources.

Result? Mistrust. Muddle. No progress. (By the way, my experience suggests the situation is much more nuanced than our national dialog suggests; people in the energy business aren’t necessarily evil and environmentalists waste a lot of air-time accusing them of being so.)

America might best look – as it often should for examples of how adults behave in matters of serious policy debates – to Europe for a way forward.

Günther Oettinger is the European Commission’s energy commissioner. And, although he was a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party and himself a political conservative, he was won praise from Europe’s environmentalists for promoting a sensible way forward in promoting decarbonization, the use of non-fossil fuels to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. He has also proposed comprehensive energy efficiency programs, funded by utility re-investment.

Oettinger has taken no little flak from his conservative colleagues back home but he has remained steadfast in moving the agenda forward because he thinks it is the right way forward for Europe. No blaming. No posturing. No demonizing.

Can you imagine an American conservative doing the same? Can you imagine one even publicly acknowledging the issue of carbon dioxide emissions much less taking on conservative colleagues to get something done on the issue?

We have so much to learn.