This afternoon, I read “Green Giant,” Evan Osnos’s New Yorker piece about China’s aggressive pursuit of environmentally-aware energy strategies. The piece is no love note; Mr Osnos makes it very clear at the start that China has a long, long way to go before its atmospheres are as clean as ours. But the thrust of the story takes a longer view, and the United States suffers in the comparison. If China has improved, we’ve done the other thing.
In America, things have gone differently. In April of 1977, President Jimmy Carter warned that the hunt for new energy sources, triggered by the second Arab oil embargo, would be the “moral equivalent of war.” He nearly quadrupled public investment in energy research, and by the mid-nineteen-eighties the U.S. was the unchallenged leader in clean technology, manufacturing more than fifty per cent of the world’s solar cells and installing ninety per cent of the wind power.
Ronald Reagan, however, campaigned on a pledge to abolish the Department of Energy, and, once in office, he reduced investment in research, beginning a slide that would continue for a quarter century. “We were working on a whole slate of very innovative and interesting technologies,” Friedmann, of the Lawrence Livermore lab, said. “And, basically, when the price of oil dropped in 1986, we rolled up the carpet and said, ‘This isn’t interesting anymore.’ ” By 2006, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. government was investing $1.4 billion a year—less than one-sixth the level at its peak, in 1979, with adjustments for inflation. (Federal spending on medical research, by contrast, nearly quadrupled during that time, to more than twenty-nine billion dollars.)
As I read the article, I felt that Mr Osnos was telling me useful things that, as a voter in the world’s superpower, I ought to know. But what about my fellow Americans who thought that Ronald Reagan was made of presidential timber — when in fact he was nothing more than a shill for the outlook of property owners in the Southwest United States. And what about the people who admired the second Bush, a man who made being “a shill for the outlook of property owners in the Southwest United States” sound like something much better than the worst possible president? And what about the fans of Sarah Palin, a woman who, in her contempt for genuine politics, really, really reminds me of Adolf Hitler, and who makes George W Bush take on the air of presidential sapling. What about all these omadhauns? What’s the use of reading about China’s coal gasification project if you’re yoked to utter morons?
Many people stop there — and they stop reading articles about China in The New Yorker. Me, I should like to stop being yoked to utter morons. Sarah Palan is an idiot. Once upon a time, perhaps, she was a small-town political operative, but the temptations of William Kristol and others have inflated her brain like a pink balloon of Bazooka chewing gum. It no longer computes. Anyone who thinks that she is a viable political candidate for anything more advanced than the governorship of Alaska (can we go back to being ‘the forty-eight’ one of these days?) is a backward adolescent. This assertion is no more open to argument than the proposition that reading is a waste of time, or that reality television is “democratic.” ‘
In any philosophical systems, there are axioms, points that don’t require re-argument every time something new comes up for discussion. When a given philosophical system’s axioms do need to be re-argued, then that system is either dead or dying. To anyone who argues that Sarah Palin’s views on the environment (even if I happen to agree with them) are deserving of national debate (they’re not, because Ms Palin is a barely-educated, barely-functional housewife), my reply is that perhaps it’s the axioms of our democratic franchise that we need to debate.
Even in America, the franchise is not universasl. We don’t allow toddlers to vote. We don’t allow young people between the ages of twelve and seventeen to vote — teenagers. Once upon a time, we required voters to have a certain net worth — usually, to have property worth a certain amount of rental income. We certainly don’t want to go back to that. But we desperately need a voter-qualification criterion.
How long, though, are we going to participate in a travesty of honoring the votes of jerks with potatoes where their brains ought to be? Smart people, can we think of something, before the dummies mount one of their human-pyramid spectacles and, falling over, as in their stupidity they inevitably will, crush us?