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Arrested Development: On Energy and the Debt, We Live by Bluth Family Values

At first glance, you might not think the debt crisis and the energy crisis have much in common. But they’ve got two big similarities, either of which can come back to bite us.

As we write this, it looks like Republicans and Democrats have reached a deal allowing the United States to raise its arbitrary debt ceiling before Tuesday and avoid a historic default on its obligations. There’s been a lot of concern in the environmental world that a default, or even the austerity plans proposed to avoid default, would gut clean energy programs. That’s legitimate. But fiscal policy and energy policy are also alike in two fundamental ways:

  • They both can’t go on forever. If anything ought to make a chill run down your spine, it’s the fact that experts are using the same words to describe both our energy future and our fiscal course: unsustainable.

All of the federal government’s budget agencies — the independent Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, and the White House Office of Management and Budget — have applied this word to the national debt. The debt we’ve piled up over the last decade is bad enough, but it’s small potatoes compared to the debt we’re projected to pile up if we stay on the path we’re on now. If we don’t get our spending in line with our revenues, the debt is on track to be as large as our total economy in less than a decade, and twice our total GDP by the 2030s.

The International Energy Agency used the exact same word last year to describe the global energy system: unsustainable. Scientists and the IEA are convinced that the course we’re on now will lead to irreversible damage to the climate. And even if that weren’t the case, the IEA and other experts say the world is going to have enormous difficulty just coming up with enough energy to keep up with development in countries like India and China. Global energy demand is projected to rise by more than a third in just 20 years.

  • They both stem from an unwillingness to make big, basic choices. The Energy Information Administration projects our energy mix will hardly budge unless we start getting and using energy differently. Right now, we get 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels, and in 20 years we’ll still be getting 80 percent from fossil fuels. Yes, we’ll be using more renewables, but they’ll just help keep up with demand.

The only way we’re going to change our energy mix is to come up with an energy policy that makes fundamental choices: What kind of power plants do we want to build? How do we fuel our cars? What kinds of transportation, housing, energy use do we ramp up and which do we reduce?

Our budget problems, too, stem from an inability to set basic priorities. The Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein once wrote that, “if you look at how the federal government spends our money, it’s an insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army.” Almost all the spending goes for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense.

Those are defensible priorities, but given the aging of the massive baby boom generation combined with skyrocketing health care costs, soon we’ll barely take in enough revenue to cover them, much less everything else. In less than 10 years, unless things change, the GAO says that 90 cents of every tax dollar the government takes in will go to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the money we’ve already borrowed. That means that the government’s fixed costs will overwhelm the rest of the budget. There just won’t be much left over for education, defense — or investment in clean energy and infrastructure.

Which brings us to the fundamental choices on the budget: What do we want government to do? How much are we willing to pay to do it?

The irony of course, is that there are some two-fers available. For example, some experts argue that instituting a carbon tax would both raise revenue to close the fiscal gap and make renewable energy more competitive with fossil fuels. Others say it’s it’s vital to invest in areas that strengthen the economy—on a smart grid and jump-starting clean energy, for example—but combine it with a serious plan to cut the cost of Medicare and other healthcare spending over time. But so far at least, too many politicians seem to prefer sound bites to making the choices needed to solve the problem.

On both crises—the budget as well as energy and climate—the United States Congress resembles no one so much as the Bluths, the occasionally rich and always dysfunctional family on the sitcom Arrested Development. The Bluth combination of wealth and fecklessness meant that whenever they really needed to pull together, whenever they needed to act responsibly, they were never able to do it. There was always another speedboat to buy, another magic act to underwrite, another family fight that was more important.

In Washington, we currently have a situation where politicians deliberately sought out a debt crisis to force themselves to act–and they’re still squabbling up until the last second. That strategy has proven about as traumatic to the country as the Bluth family’s traditional parenting technique of teaching life lessons by frightening the children. Even if they paste a plan together to get past the crisis, it may not be much more than kicking the can down the road.

But at least the real dimensions of the country’s budget problem—that’s it’s simply unsustainable as-is—have become apparent to the American people. On energy, unfortunately, we’re not even at that point yet.