A Better Plan for Energy Security?
A little-reported fact: Obama’s recent announcement of expanded off-shore drilling was made at Andrews Air Force Base before a military audience with President Obama speaking not as a civilian leader, but as commander-in-chief. That’s because Obama’s speech was framed as a matter of energy security.
The problem with the plan Obama outlined on Wednesday is that it actually does very little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It may be laudable to increase the use of solar power or to allow off-shore drilling, but none of these solutions from Obama’s proposal will do much to make Americans safer.
What these programs will do, if you listen to the critics, is create economic distortions, stifle innovation, and, in the case of drilling, do great environmental and aesthetic damage to our coastlines. Of course, even the best plan will still have regrettable effects, but the problem with Obama’s proposals is that they don’t have much of an upside.
That’s why we need to think about proposals for domestic programs that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil while leveraging what the government is actually well-suited to do: make infrastructure and capital investments that can serve as an engine for economic growth. In short, we need something on the scale of Eisenhower’s National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
This, at least, is the proposal offered by William Lind and the late Paul Weyrich in a paper Weyrich submitted as part of his work on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Review Commission (bold mine):
In the face of the Global War on Terrorism, providing Americans with mobility that is not dependent on foreign oil may be second in importance only to securing our homeland against direct terrorist attack. Just as the Cold War brought about the National Defense Interstate Highway Act, so we think it probable that the future will require a National Defense Public Transportation Act.
This plan, fleshed out in the book Moving Minds, would create a national transportation network that provides reliable, efficient and mostly train-based public transportation to all Americans. Now obviously this proposal (like all the others currently on offer) would have many potential downsides. No doubt the cost would be overwhelming, even if it pales in comparison with the bill for another Iraq War.
Still, two things separate the Lind-Weyrich plan from Obama’s. First, it restricts government to a role that, due to the need for collective action and massive capital outlays, would be difficult for any private actor to fill. Second, it actually solves the problem that it seeks to address. I don’t know if we should adopt the Lind-Weyrich proposal for an Interstate-style rail system. But it’s a lot more impressive than the other solutions currently out there.