Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Light Shines on Experience and Energy Policy

Good news, despite today's headlines: There is reason in the world after all. At least, there is on the New York Times op-ed page. (OK, limited comfort. But at the moment, we should take what we can get.)

This week produced two exceptionally insightful columns.

The first is by David Brooks, titled "Why Experience Matters." His points parallel those I made in my trio of Palin posts, but does a better job of situating the debate in American political culture. Anyone on the panicked-by-Palin bandwagon (yes, that includes me) had better accept the fact that the arguments being made now in favor of experience and, particularly, standards, are ones that have traditionally been embraced by conservatives in this country. Remember Alan Bloom, and The Closing of the American Mind?

Well, I don't think (as Bloom did) that classical education is to be equated with "standards." But I am of the view that there are standards of inquiry that allow one to make assertions with greater and lesser degrees of confidence, and that understanding and respecting such standards is vital to the functioning of a democracy. The celebration of cultural diversity and the recognition that any question can be approach from multiple points of view becomes a dangerously degenerate epistemological proposition when it is taken to mean absolute egalitarianism in inquiry. If you have any doubt about this, please read with care the speech delivered a year ago at Columbia University by Iranian President Ahmadinejad: post-modern relativism placed into the service of holocaust deniers. Yes, standards of inquiry do exist for a reason.

The second exceptional column of the week is by Thomas Friedman, titled "Making America Stupid." I am not always in agreement with Friedman on energy policy. In particular, I get quite aggravated by his lack of clarity on the function of prices. One day high prices are bad because they result in our sending more of our money to unfriendly regimes--in the limit, "funding both sides on the war on terror." The next day high prices are essential because they induce investment in alternatives. From the standpoint of policy, the only way to have it both ways is for the government to commit to a floor on gas (or, more broadly, energy prices) and use the proceeds from the implied tax to direct the U.S. innovation capability around energy technology. Well, that is pretty much the line of argument Friedman is advancing now. This column is a must-read. The McCain camp may or may not be listening, but I certainly hope the Obama camp is paying close attention. Forget the empty rhetoric about ending imports of oil from the Middle East. Focus on what really matters: Making sure that the United States is in the lead in energy innovation, which is sure to develop into one of the two or three core industries of the 21st century.

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