Modern physicists often point to Schrödinger’s cat paradox to illuminate the peculiarity and utter bizarreness of our limited understanding of quantum mechanics. Devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, this thought experiment offered an elegantly simple explanation of the quirky nature of quantum superpositions — the simultaneous combination of all possible states in a system, which exist until observation.
Schrödinger proposed a scenario in which the life or death of a cat, sealed in a box, depended upon the state of an unobservable subatomic particle. Because the fate of the cat is inextricably linked to the state of the particle, the paradox suggests the cat is simultaneously alive and dead until the box is opened, just as the particle simultaneously assumes every possible state until observation.
Enough physics. I’ll get to the point: Energy policy in the United States is that cat.
Unfortunately, the bloviation of TV pundits and Washington politicians has painfully, and even shamefully obscured, what seems to be a fairly simply calculus: Are we serious about combating global warming, and, if so, are we willing to pay for it?
Here’s the sober reality: We suckle on the teat of foreign oil because it’s cheap. And at the end of the day, that’s what the typical, budget-conscious American family cares about.
But even if Congress decides that the negative externalities associated with our cheapest energy source are intolerably high, the transparently futile, special interest-driven quasi-solutions spewing from the volcanically myopic Beltway are not the answer. Congress doesn’t need to pick ethanol, hydrogen or switchgrass as the panacea for our energy problems. Nor does Congress need to set unrealistic fuel efficiency standards to encourage Detroit automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars. What Congress needs to do is make oil expensive.
Instead, what we’ve seen is the equivalent of that quantum superposition — our nation’s leaders seem to think the future of oil is both alive and dead.
Despite the increasingly widespread availability of alternative fuels, the majority of consumers simply won’t bite until they’re cheaper than gas. And it’s clear Congress is not willing to take that option off the table, though they insist we need to wean ourselves off of our oil addiction. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the current state of environmental politics: Congress listens to Al Gore talk about “the most dangerous crisis we have ever faced” and then lifts the ban on offshore drilling. Our presidential candidates offer to make gas cheaper (Hillary Clinton and John McCain, eat your hearts out), and our members of Congress hold hearings to determine “why today’s gasoline and diesel prices are so high … and what can be done about it,” as one Senate Committee on Natural Resources workshop in July described it.
Ethanol is perhaps the most salient example of the problem with this superposition. As Greg Mankiw, Harvard economist and maybe the author of your introductory economics textbook here, plainly explained in a piece he wrote for The New York Times, “the price mechanism is the most reliable way to reduce energy consumption.” Instead of simply taxing oil, Congress offered us a Byzantine amalgam of new rules, regulations and wasteful earmarks in the form of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which, among other brilliant ideas, mandated the blending of ethanol with gasoline in increasing proportions until 2022.
So what have we learned since its passage?
Well, for one, nearly every economist and their uncle has told us the total cost of blending ethanol is probably more expensive and likely more damaging to the environment than gasoline. Commodities prices have ballooned (this summer, the World Bank determined that as much as 75 percent of the 140 percent increase in world food prices was the product of increased biofuel use), which has forced lower-and middle-class Americans to stretch their budgets to feed their families. And what, then, does the Western world say to Africa? While many sub-Saharan nations wallow in hunger, depravity and poverty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–Nev.) is content to force you to burn what might otherwise be food aid in your car’s engine.
Our politicians aren’t smart enough to determine what the next long-term energy solution will be. Our politicians are equipped with the tools to incentivize the discovery of the next big energy idea. Increased tax revenues from oil and gasoline can be redistributed to mitigate any regressive income effects; funding for research can be maintained; the construction of additional nuclear power plants can be permitted (especially considering the French have already swallowed that pill). The point is, agro-lobbyists don’t have the answers.
My understanding of climatology is limited to the navigation of weather.com every morning, so I’ll default to the experts. But if the sky really is falling and the energy crisis really is as bad we’re led to believe, immediately dethroning oil as our primary energy source needs to be the priority. If not, let’s stop siphoning resources from the economy and squeezing middle America.
We should be tired of straddling the line — it’s time to open the damn box.
Franklin Shaddy is a Business School senior.