Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan

reagan.jpgRonald Wilson Reagan is the “culprit in chief” when it comes to the “current energy debacle” explains Richard Cohen in “Wish Upon a Pump.” I could not agree more.

Reagan is a key reason we have only about one-sixth of the soaring global market for windpower — an industry we once dominated: “President Reagan cut the renewable energy R&D budget 85% after he took office and eliminated the wind investment tax credit in 1986. This was pretty much the death of most of the US wind industry” (see “Anti-wind McCain delivers climate remarks at foreign wind company“).

Reagan gutted Carter’s entire multi-billion dollar clean energy and energy efficiency effort. He opposed and then rolled back fuel economy standards. Reagan turned all such commonsense strategies into “liberal” policies that must be opposed by any true conservative, a position embraced all too consistently by conservative leaders from Gingrich to Bush/Cheney and now to John McCain.

The only real difference between Reagan and Bush/McCain is that the latter have embraced the Frank Luntz strategy for conservatives, in which they claim rhetorically that they support clean energy technologies while actually promoting anti-technology policies (see “Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.” That is why anti-wind McCain goes to a wind company to talk about climate.

The media was oblivious to what the Teflon president did in the 1980s, and they continue to lap up phony rhetoric of the anti-clean-energy conservatives today (see “Slate and the Post are suckered by anti-environmentalist Newt Gingrich” and “NYT’s Andy Revkin and E. O. Wilson get suckered by Newt Gingrich’s phony techno-optimism“). Well, not all of the media. Cohen gets it right in his terrific op-ed, most of which I reprint below:

Those of you with keen memories may recall that the energy crisis is not new. In 1977, Jimmy Carter called it the “moral equivalent of war.” In the sort of speech a politician rarely delivers, he told a not-particularly-grateful nation that his energy program was going to hurt, but “a policy which does not ask for changes or sacrifices would not be an effective policy.” The core of his initiative was conservation. Carter had earlier asked us to lower our thermostats and wear sweaters. He wore one himself.

Reagan, who succeeded Carter in the White House, wore only a smile. For him, there was no energy crisis. Whereas Carter had insisted that only the government could manage the energy crisis, Reagan, in his first inaugural, demanded that government get out of the way. Speaking of general economic conditions at the time, he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem.” He went on to call for America to return to greatness, to “reawaken this industrial giant,” and all sorts of swell things would happen. It was wonderful stuff.

To contrast the two speeches is like comparing the screeching of a cat to the miracles of Mozart. Yet today, Carter’s speech reads as prescient. Most of his dire predictions — “It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century” — have generally come true, although not quite as soon or as calamitously as he had warned. The pity of it all is that in American politics, being right is beside the point.

It is not my intention to pummel the late Ronald Reagan for what he did or did not do back in the 1980s. It is my intention, though, to suggest that Reaganism — to which Republicans now swear allegiance — has outlived its very short usefulness and ought to be junked. This is not to say that government is the answer to all our ills. It is only to note that if you think the answer is private enterprise, then drive to the nearest gas station and admire the prices brought to you by private companies.

The worst part of Reaganism was its political success. It left behind a coterie of panting acolytes who learned from Reagan himself that optimism, cheerfulness, an embrace of magical thinking and the avoidance of the painful truth was the formula for victory at the polls. For a time, it worked — the cost of gas went down — and Carter, that scold in the silly sweater, was banished. As they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll!) Upbeat? You bet. But not a business plan.

[Note to Cohen: Ironically, one reason for Reagan’s political success is that oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s, because the high energy prices coupled with the aggressive government-led efficiency and conservation policies he gutted — including doubling the fuel economy of U.S. vehicles — led to more supply and less demand.]

In “The Age of Reagan,” Princeton historian Sean Wilentz posits that Reagan was the transformative president of our times. I don’t know about that. But I do know that in the recent primary debates, Republican after Republican invoked Reagan the way Democrats once did Roosevelt, and they vowed, knock on wood, to be a similar kind of president. If they meant what they said, that would mean no energy plan worth its name and, worse, chirpy assurances to the American people that all would be well.

This is the doleful legacy of Reaganism. We have become a nation that believes that you can get something for nothing. We thought that the energy crisis would be solved . . . somehow, and that no one would have to suffer. We still believe in the magical qualities of America, that something about us makes us better. Yet we have a chaotic and mediocre education system that desperately needs more money and higher standards, but we think — don’t we? — that somehow we will maintain our lifestyle anyway. Hey, is this America or what?

Somewhere in his peripatetic travels, the much-maligned Jimmy Carter — an artless politician, to be sure — must scratch his head at the reverence still accorded Reagan. The way things are going, the Gipper’s visage will be added to Mount Rushmore. Not that anyone will notice. It’ll be too expensive to drive there.

7 Responses to Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan

  1. Ronald says:

    Yet again, a correct and well written piece. To bad everybody isn’t exposed to good stuff like that.

  2. caerbannog says:

    The cooperative Saudis deserve lots of credit for those low oil prices — they had plenty of excess production capacity in those days, and they weren’t afraid to use it.

    The Saudis also deserve much of the credit for bringing down the old Soviet Union. By depressing world prices so much, they were able to “bleed” the less-efficient Soviet petroleum industry dry (effectively turning the Soviet Union’s primary cash-cow into a money-pit). This helped to bankrupt the communist Soviet regime, contributing mightily to its collapse.

    So the heroic icon representing those responsible for bringing down the old Soviet Union shouldn’t be that of a man on a horse wearing a cowboy hat — it should be that of a man on a camel wearing a ghutra.

  3. Bob Wallace says:

    “an artless politician”

    Wonder where the US would be today if we had a president during the last seven years who told us the truth?

    Even the truths that we might not want to hear.

    Perhaps an artful politician is the last thing we want for our President.

  4. Dennis says:


    The Soviet Union was well on the way towards falling apart before Ronald Reagan was elected President. Just read the CIA’s Soviet economic & social assessments from the 1970’s. They were eerily prescient of what happened in the late 80’s.

  5. Hal Levin says:

    OK, go ahead and play the blame game. Throw attention off of our own sins.

    I can’t comment on which President or party chairman or sheik is most responsible. I can comment that I and more than about 100 (or 150 or 200 – depending on how generous you are with the blame and honest you are about your own role) million other Americans just like me (and you) have consumed (and I don’t mean just energy) ruthlessly, recklessly, for the past half century or more. The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere now have accumulated, some for several decades or more, from our combustion of fossil fuels, use of air conditioning refrigerants, blind release of methane from landfills and barnyard (stockyard) manure piles, and the list goes on and on and on. If you are still eating meat, count yourself in too.

    I am certainly no admirer of Reagan’s policies, either here in California where I voted against him four times for Governor, or in the White House, again where I voted against him twice. Yes, four times against him for Governor — I registered as a Republican just to be able to do that in the Primary Elections.

    But he didn’t cut all those budgets without some help and support and it certainly wasn’t on our minds as we drove our gas guzzlers and consumed as we have become accustomed to doing.

    No, we have many more people to thank than just Ronnie. Until we adjust our behavior to the point where we can actually claim to be “climate neutral” — and I don’t mean by paying for tree-planting or other “offsets” — I think we should always acknowledge our past and present contributions. Then, OK. let’s sentimentalize about what it might be like if Carter had been re-elected… or some other wishful fantasy.

    – mea culpa

  6. Nick says:

    As usual, I really wish that more people who didn’t already agree with you would read what you write. Excellent work.

  7. chris says:

    seems very plausable.. reagan overall was a lets get rich and to hell with the consequences kind of guy… externalise all problems. bad.