Monday, September 8, 2008

It Will Take More Than Money

The United States government does one thing well— and one thing only. It can spend money like a Doberman can eat a prime rib roast. The U.S. government spends money, not with simple commitment, but with unbridled enthusiasm. So, today, when the Feds took over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, we could all rest comfortably in the knowledge that a huge portion of the mortgage mess would be alleviated by the infusion of good old-fashioned government greenbacks. Never mind that those greenbacks would eventually need to come from inflation-generating government printing presses, or Chinese lenders, or that kind of surreal and mysterious metaphysical transfer system that defers the whole wad of cash into the future, and places it on the backs of our children and grandchildren. For the time being, this particular economic crisis proved that it could be smoothed-over by the one thing the government is good at— spending money.

I wish that all of our problems could be amenable to the same solution. Specifically, I wish that the energy crisis could be solved with big government money. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Pulitzer Prize winning writer and brilliant thinker, Thomas Friedman, is proposing that our energy problems can be solved by something he is calling, the ET revolution. ET stands for Energy Technology. He sees the ET revolution unfolding much like the IT revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when home computers and the Internet transformed the way that we gained and shared information. Friedman’s analogy is interesting, but I see a drawback that might prove to be a deal-breaker. The fact is that 20 to 30 years ago, the majority of the best scientific and engineering minds in the world were doing their thinking and working right here in the United States. Not so anymore. Just like the Nazi regime in Germany drove away the best German scientific thinkers in the 1930s, and pushed many of them across the sea to our shores, so has the Bush administration has pushed scientific thought out of the United States and sent much of it across the sea to Asia. I don’t mean to imply that the Bush administration is the equivalent of Nazism. No way. But George W. Bush and his cronies have created an almost medieval, Spanish Inquisitional, modern Dark Ages where it comes to science— stifling research and even simple discourse on scientific subjects ranging from stem cell therapies to global warming.

Today, our public educational system is a pathetic failure in the teaching of language and mathematics, but it fails even more spectacularly in the teaching of science. Only 18% of high schoolers take even one science class during their years in the classroom. If (as the Republican presidential candidates are proposing) supernatural divine creation is inserted into the school curriculum, scientific learning will suffer even more. So the question is this— if an ET revolution is going to save us from energy catastrophe, then how will the technology (the T in ET) come about without a strong community of scientists and engineers? The answer is that the ET revolution will take place where science has now found a home. Unfortunately, that place is Asia, not the United States.

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