When it comes to government, more is not better. Less is not better. Only better is better. And better is what we as a society should strive for.
by Jonathan Koomey, in an excerpt from his new book “Cold Cash, Cool Climate”
Imagine a company where the CEO says “We’ll never raise prices, borrow money, or increase our expenses under any circumstances, nor will we act to expand existing or create new markets when we have a competitive advantage in doing so.” You’d think that CEO was loony. But this is exactly what some say about government when they say that spending and taxes should never increase, that environment regulations should always be relaxed, and that government should always do less than it’s doing now.
I believe that anyone who spends money should get what they pay for, and that money (particularly public funds) should be spent prudently, wisely, and carefully. But as a father, consultant, researcher, and entrepreneur, I’m also acutely aware that sometimes families, companies, governments, and societies need to invest money for the future. ”You have to spend money to make money,” says the old proverb. And sometimes only government can do what needs to be done.
What we need is an honest discussion about what kind of government we want and what we want it to do for us. Sometimes we’ll want more government, like when we find lead in children’s toys, salmonella in peanut butter, poison in medicines, an unsustainable health care system, or fraudulent assets and a lack of transparency in the financial world. We know from experience that only government can fix those things. Sometimes we’ll want less government, like when old and conflicting regulations get in the way of starting innovative new companies. Only government can fix that too (although the private sector has some lessons to teach on that score). And sometimes we’ll want the same government, just delivered more efficiently (like the state of California has done with the Department of Motor Vehicles in recent years, the good results of which I’ve experienced firsthand).
It makes no sense to oppose taxes, increased spending, or stricter regulations in every circumstance. Sometimes we need to do those things, and when we do them, we should ensure fairness, efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, and transparency so we get what we’re paying for. But what we should not do is govern our actions based on ideology that is blind to fiscal, environmental, and other realities. That’s not liberal or conservative, it’s just dumb.
Which brings me to the climate issue. The choice of how to fix the climate needs to be made based on facts and evidence, not on unreasoning hostility to any government action. One common theme for those opposed to action on climate is a deep concern about government. It is so deep, in fact, that these folks appear unable or unwilling to recognize the reality of the climate problem described in the earlier chapters. This is exactly backwards–once you accept that only government can do certain things about the climate problem, we move that discussion to where it should be, focusing on the question “what kind of government do we want, and how can we make it work best?” Government is us, it is not an alien force, and we will, as the old proverb says, get the government we deserve. If we don’t figure out better ways to govern ourselves, we’re going to be in big trouble, given the scope and nature of the climate problem.
Jonathan Koomey is a researcher, consultant and lecturer on climate solutions. This blog post draws from Chapter 7 in his latest book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs.