Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s have no desire to relive those days. After all, it was an era of price controls, gasoline lines and stagflation. These ills were triggered when our government attempted to "fix" the economy by subverting the free market. Instead it simply ended up creating an economic nightmare.
As John O'Sullivan reminds us in his excellent new book The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister, the fortunes of the United States seemed then to be in decline.
President Jimmy Carter "had concluded that the American people should maturely accept a narrowing of their hopes and horizons," O'Sullivan writes. Carter thought "the American way of life, combining freedom with prosperity, was no longer possible in a world where shortages of raw materials made controls essential and rationing perhaps morally obligatory."
That's not how Ronald Reagan saw things. "People who talk about an age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America's," he chided. And indeed, when Reaganomics replaced Carter's failed policies, our economy took off, beginning an economic expansion that continues to this day.
All this matters now, because many want us to repeat some of the same policy mistakes that made the '70s an economic nightmare.
This time, the impetus is "global warming," but the prescription is the same: government controls and slower economic growth. "Our natural role is to be the pace car in the race to stop global warming," Al Gore explained in a speech this fall. The former vice president says that to do that, "we should start by immediately freezing CO2 emissions and then beginning sharp reductions."
Of course, the reason the United States emits so much CO2 is because we've got the planet's largest economy. So Gore's prescription boils down to saying we need to show the rest of the world the way forward by freezing -- and then reversing -- our economic growth.
That's exactly the wrong approach. If anything, we need to increase the pace of our growth, and the rest of the world's. Economic growth, after all, is the surest way to clean up the environment.
Research cited by the World Bank finds that once per capita income in a country rises to between $5,000 and $8,000, pollution starts to decline. It seems that once people are earning enough to support their families, they're eager to improve their environment, too.
Economic success also generates creativity. Our vibrant economy keeps developing clever inventions such as the iPod. High-speed Internet connections allow more people to work from home, thus taking cars off the road. And as long as we keep growing, the years ahead will bring ever-cleaner and more efficient energy alternatives, too.
Remember that our economy once depended on burning trees for power. We moved from wood to coal, from coal to oil and natural gas, and we'll move from those fossil fuels to something else.
As a bonus, the advanced technologies our economy will develop "could eventually facilitate accelerated progress toward addressing the long-term challenge of climate change, while also continuing the energy-related and other services needed to sustain economic growth," a report by the Bush administration's climate-change technology program explains.
That's because the new technology will improve our energy efficiency, reduce emissions of all types of greenhouse gases, and may eventually allow us to capture CO2 and actually remove it from the environment. If, that is, we allow the free market and the creativity it generates to thrive.
If we want to eliminate global warming and improve our environment, the answer is to grow boldly in the future -- not to foolishly repeat the mistakes of the past.
First appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times