Unrealistic Goals

Obama's Fantasy Energy Plan—David Frum

SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

I had a friend, now dead, who worked for West German intelligence debriefing East Bloc defectors.

He said—I won't use quote marks since I'm reconstructing from memory a conversation from 25 years ago—Our biggest problem was with the defectors born after 1945. They had known nothing but Communism. All their lives they had been told by the Communist media that the West was a land of poverty, unemployment, pollution, and racism. So, naturally, they took it absolutely for granted that in the West there was no poverty, no unemployment, no pollution, and no racism.

Likewise, over the past three years, President Obama has come under so much crazy criticism that many find it natural to conclude that he deserves no criticism at all.

To which I can only say: listen to the president's energy speech in Miami.

President Obama wants to transition from oil. Good idea. But he insists on extending the idea that alternative fuels are cheaper than oil (and coal). But if that were true ... the transition would have happened already.

So he falls back on the line that alternatives could be cheaper if only we subsidized them more. But subsidies are also money, and to say that something is cheaper after its subsidy is like saying that a man is taller when he stands on a box.

Which leads to the argument that the alternatives would be competitive if only we removed the various implicit and alleged subsidies to oil and gas. It's not so clear that these subsidies really count as such. But assuming these subsidies do indeed exist, it must follow that if they were abolished, the price of gasoline would rise at the pump. Which the president denies is his intention—making nonsense of the rest of his message.

Here's the energy truth:

We want energy that is cheap. We want energy that is clean. We want energy that is secure. We can have (at most) two of those three desiderata. Coal is cheap and secure, but not clean. Wind and solar are clean and secure, but not cheap. Oil from the Persian Gulf is (relatively) cheap, but neither clean nor secure.

The beginning of energy policy is to choose your priorities.

And to graft a fourth priority—job-creating—on those priorities is to complicate matters further. The idea that we're going to find lots of well-paid industrial jobs by manufacturing (say) wind turbines in America is to pile fantasy on fantasy.

My sense is that the president's are (1) secure; (2) clean; and cheap only (3). Which is as rational a rank-ordering as any. But where the politics get dirty is when the president insists on pretending that his third-ranked priority is really his first—or that an energy policy aimed at carbon abatement will also generate lots of high-paid jobs, without costing anybody a nickel in longer-term higher prices.

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Such promises are free-lunchism at its worst, and the unfair criticisms that the president absorbs from those accusing him of lunch-Nazism should not absolve him of blame when he indulges in delusive energy politics.