An energy hypocrisy
December 1, 2007
Thirty years ago, in January 1977, I joined President Jimmy Carter’s administration as an energy economist. I was young, excited and had great expectations. President Carter had made energy his priority during his election campaign. He promised to lead the United States in a new direction. Having participated in a major nonprofit study funded by the Ford Foundation, I had high hopes. Had Carter succeeded in his efforts, this country would be in much better shape today.
Three years later, I left the capital to teach at Yale, far sadder and far wiser in the ways of Washington. My years in the Carter administration were a long lesson in hypocrisy. In 1977, I believed the president and the Democrats would initiate a major program to reduce vehicle fuel use, then my primary focus. I had not counted on Congressman John D. Dingell and the rest of the Democratic delegation from Michigan. Congressman Dingell and his friends made every effort to protect their constituents in the auto industry. They succeeded, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Recently, I have learned that “energy hypocrisy” is not limited to Washington, D.C. This year the city of Aspen has established the nation’s “Gold Standard” in this regard. My new education began at a City Council meeting in October. At that meeting, former mayor Bill Stirling noted the achievement of the Canary Initiative and an environmental award the city received from Harvard. Then, later in the evening, in the true tradition of Congressman Dingell, Stirling led the opposition to repealing Ordinance 30/48. In other words, he continued his efforts to halt the removal of old, unattractive buildings that add little to the town while wasting energy at a hellacious rate.
There is no better example than the Tyrolean Lodge. The owners admit the building is an energy “sink.” I doubt anyone would dream of trying to remodel it to achieve today’s high energy standards. The economics would not work. But facts do not bother hypocritical politicians such as Bill Stirling and John Dingell. They preach energy conservation while perpetuating waste.
I have also learned that other politicians, while embracing energy conservation and trying to limit auto pollution, will do nothing to eliminate road congestion. Our current mayor seems to believe people commuting from downvalley will take the bus if he makes the commute onerous enough. He is wrong and I am sure he knows it. Commuters across the globe have demonstrated a strong preference for the private auto except in very dense urban settings. Here the commuters will do one of two things: demand higher wages to compensate for the costs inflicted on them by congestion, or work elsewhere. Either way, we lose. Hypocritically, those in government fail to acknowledge that their efforts to force people out of cars will only increase fuel use and pollution. They act in the fine tradition of John Dingell, sacrificing important energy and environmental objectives for their own selfish political goals.
These facts lead me to suggest that Aspen stop touting its Canary Initiative. It is a nice effort. (We called these “grade school programs” in the Carter administration.) However, it is meaningless. To quote my former boss, Secretary of Treasury Blumenthal, “To improve our lot, we must see the world without illusions, as it really is, like it or not ” and however uncomfortable that may be for timid politicians.” I hope Aspen will end its energy hypocrisy. To do so, though, politicians such as Bill Stirling need to find new models. John Dingell provides a bad example.