Cut-and-Invest Is a Death Trap

A Better Way to Finance Public Investment

If Obama is re-elected as president, there are indications that his administration will try to work with the lame-duck Congress to pass a “grand bargain” to reduce long-term deficits, in order to avert the “fiscal cliff” created by the expiration of George W. Bush’s ten-year tax cuts together with the steep automatic cuts devised last summer in order to provide lawmakers with an incentive to negotiate. As part of this national conversation, some neoliberals are likely to revive an old phrase from the 1990s: “cut-and-invest.” The idea is classic Clintonian triangulation—progressives can increase public investment in R&D and infrastructure, and at the same time prove to the business and financial community that they are serious about deficit reduction, by cutting entitlements for the elderly.

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Our Unproductive Climate Debate

Broadening and Diversifying Public Concern

Public opinion about climate change, observes the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, can be compared to “waves in a shallow pan,” easily tipped with “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.” In a chapter published last year at the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, I review research that provides several explanations for the complex nature of U.S. public opinion. Environmental, political and media conditions will change over time, but the basic processes by which individuals and social groups interpret climate change will remain generally the same, and it is these processes that I highlight in the chapter.

I discuss studies identifying an "issue public" of Americans supporting political action and a similarly sized segment of Americans opposing action. Between these tail-end segments, more than 2/3 of Americans still remain relatively ambivalent about the importance and urgency of climate change. I also discuss how research is being used to identify and develop communication initiatives that empower and enable these publics to reach decisions and to participate in societal debates. Scholars are examining how values, social identity, mental models, social ties, and information sources combine to shape judgments and decisions.

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The ‘Corporate Welfare’ Behind the Gas Revolution

The Hamiltonian Promise, from Fracking to Clean Tech

Not long after President Obama defended his green energy investments by pointing to decades of taxpayer money for the natural gas revolution, prominent conservatives responded by denying the government's role outright. "I hear the President say the DOE invented [fracking] 30 years ago," said T. Boone Pickens, "and I don't know what he's talking about." At a public forum last July, Romney adviser Linda Gillespie Stuntz said, "The American wildcatters who really developed the hydraulic fracturing technology that's made this energy bonanza a reality didn't have anything to do with federal government."

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Winning the Future

How Obama Can Defy Critics and Shift Momentum

As President Obama prepares for tomorrow’s night Presidential debate, he faces the most important public appearance of his political career. Obama’s poor performance in the first debate, combined with Romney’s successful appeal, has contributed to a tightening of the national and battleground polls, and a sizable enthusiasm differential that favors Republicans.  In the second debate, delivering at least a draw might help Obama stem the momentum gap with Romney, and the erosion of support among likely women voters. 

To do so, many commentators have argued that the President has to be more confrontational, going on the attack against Romney, calling him out on what they perceive to be the major “lies” of his campaign.  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in the moments after the first debate went so far as to argue that the President needs to watch more of his program and network: "We have our knives out…We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed."

Yet a lack of confrontation is not what has hurt Obama.  To the contrary, it is the Obama campaign’s one-dimensional negativity that has helped Romney close the gap in the polls and that has elevated the success of his first debate performance.  In the second debate tuesday night, defying the expectations of pundits and his base, Obama can reverse momentum by returning to the style and narratives that not so long ago made him a transformational political leader.

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The Myth of the ‘Capitalist System’

The Persistence of the Mixed Economy

One of the indices that mark the retrogression of public discourse since the 1970s is the fact that we now take it for granted that the United States and other, similar nations have a “capitalist system” or a “market economy” instead of a “mixed economy,” the term preferred by mid-century American thinkers for the typical blend of public good provision, social insurance, and private enterprise in advanced industrial nations.  Equally misleading is the idea that the Cold War, rather than being a great-power struggle, was an ideological battle in which “capitalism” won and “socialism” lost.  To the extent that economic models were involved, state socialism was discredited by comparison with the economic performance of variations of the mixed economy in which government typically accounts for 40-50 percent of national GDP.

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Is Economic Growth Coming to an End?—Part II

The Decline Narrative and the Data

In my column last week at The Breakthrough Institute on Robert Gordon's analysis of US per capita economic growth, I identified what I believe to be an error in his calculation of post-1950 growth rates. Such an error matters because Gordon's recent discussion paper has been called “the summer’s most talked about working paper in economics” and argues a data-based case for US decline. My view is that such discussions should at least start with a solid empirical basis and re-checking assertions grounded in data claims is fair game (not all agree, however).

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Is Economic Growth Coming to an End?

How Robert Gordon Misreads the Data and What It Tells Us About the Dismal Science

Over that past month there has been much discussion of a new paper by Robert Gordon, a prominent economist at Northwestern University, which carried the provocative title: Is US Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds.” (See for instance, Annie Lowrey here, the Economist here and David Keohane here).

In what Tim Harford called “the summer’s most talked about working paper in economics,” Gordon argues that the economic growth of the past century may represent an aberration from the normal state of society, which experiences little economic growth. Look far enough back in time Gordon says and the world had minimal, if any economic growth, and looking ahead, we may be returning to that dismal state. Gordon explains that he is raising “the audacious idea that economic growth was a one-time-only event."

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AP: The Secret History of the Gas Revolution

T. Boone Pickens and the Myth of the Lone Entrepreneur

At a TED talk earlier this year, the oil and gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens dismissed President Barack Obama's claim in his State of the Union address that the technological innovations that resulted in today's glut of natural gas depended on 30 years of federal investment. "I witnessed my first frack job in 1953," Pickens told the crowd, "I hear the President say the DOE [the Department of Energy] invented it 30 years ago and I don't know what he's talking about."

Since then, the claim has become a conservative talking point. "We have the hydraulic fracturing and natural gas revolution because of private entrepreneurs," claimed a gas expert from the libertarian-minded Institute for Energy Research in National Journal, "not because of the federal government or federal programs."

But now, after an in-depth investigation, the Associated Press has come to the opposite conclusion: the federal role was crucial.

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Questioning the Wisdom of Denier Discourse

Labels as a Barrier to Action on Climate Change

It's difficult to imagine today, but only four years ago, we were debating the wisdom of calling those who oppose action on climate change "deniers." In a 2008 interview with PRI The World, I suggested that the term "denier" was counter-productive. Resorting to extreme language and name calling in the climate debate not only inflames tensions among opponents, but for a wider spectator public struggling to come to terms with climate change as a societal priority, resorting to "denier" rhetoric misses the opportunity to more persuasively connect the issue to commonly shared values, or to fashion compromise around policy approaches.

As we look past the election to what might be possible on climate and energy policy during the next Administration, we would be well served to reflect carefully on the labels and rhetoric we all-too-easily come to adopt in reference to opponents and allies alike.

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The Great Cosmopolitan Stagnation

The Marriage of Technological Pessimism with Geopolitical Optimism

To the extent that the American elite shares a consensus, it is a combination of pessimism about technology and optimism about politics—particularly world politics. In my view this synthesis provides a picture that is the opposite of reality, in which amazing technological progress will continue to take place on a planet whose politics is characterized by national and sub-national conflict, irrationality, and ignorance. This seems so obvious to me that I don’t understand why most educated and thoughtful people in the U.S. and the world generally hold perceptions that are exactly opposite mine. In the words of the eighteenth-century British poet Christopher Smart, who was confined to London’s infamous Bedlam asylum: “I said they were mad, and they said I was mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”

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