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The Really, Really Bad Debt

By Bill Becker

Mar 23, 2009
Newt Gingrich

It’s time for a reality check in the contentious debate over the investments President Obama has proposed to fight global climate change and build a new energy economy.

As Ken Burns once put it, “we need a little more Pluribus and a little less Unum” in the United States these days. Instead, a newly outraged Outrage Class is firing bullets made of silly putty, hoping some will stick to the new president.

Here are some prominent examples:

Burdening Our Children With Debt

A frequent argument from fiscal conservatives is that borrowing money to build a new energy economy – including the investments contained in Obama’s stimulus package and his 2010 budget proposal – will place an unconscionable debt on our children. Reacting to deficit projections from the Obama budget, for example, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said: “We simply cannot continue to mortgage our children and grandchildren’s future to pay for bigger and more costly government.”

But the debt we should be most concerned about is our carbon debt. It’s a far more serious threat to future generations.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently concluded that even if we stop emitting carbon dioxide now, the impact of climate change from emissions already in the atmosphere will have “legacies that will irreversibly change the planet” with damages continuing for 1,000 years. Among them are coastal inundation, drought, desertification, wildfires and disruptions to agriculture. They all carry big economic costs that will undermine our kids’ prosperity, as well as their health, safety and quality of life.

We all agree that it would be far better to pay cash up front to build the green economy, but past Congresses and the past administration have left the country broke. The president’s response to Boehner was right on target: “What we will not cut are investments that will lead to real growth and prosperity over the long term.”

Not making those investments now will burden our children with an irreversible carbon debt that sentences them to hundreds of years of tragically negative returns. The carbon debt is by far the worst curse.

Drill, Baby, Drill!

In a TIME column titled “The Bad New Deal”, Newt Gingrich argues that Obama’s budget proposals will cripple the economy rather than heal it. Among other things, Gingrich writes, Obama’s proposal to levy a 13 percent excise tax on offshore oil drilling is “threatening the domestic oil and gas industry at a time when we should be encouraging it to return resources home to America.”

Gingrich would have the Obama administration join the “drill, baby, drill” chant that inspired such enthusiasm at the Republican National Convention and embrace a “strategy for energy abundance that would lower energy costs by exploring for more domestic oil and natural gas, as well as investing in sources of affordable energy for the future, including clean coal, renewable fuels, wind and nuclear.”

There are a couple of problems here. First, Obama is the chief advocate of using America’s native energy resources. The difference is that he favors resources that lead us out of the age of carbon, pollution and resource wars. Compare Gingrich’s policy statement above with this one by Obama in his 2010 budget proposal:

The pursuit of a new energy economy requires a sustained, all-hands-on-deck effort because the foundation of our energy independence is right here, in America – in the power of wind and solar, in new crops and new technologies, in the innovation of our scientist and entrepreneurs and the dedication and skill of our workforce.

As we face this challenge, we can seize boundless opportunities for our people. We can create millions of jobs. We can spark the dynamism of our economy through long-term investments in renewable energy that will give life to new businesses and industries, with good jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.

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