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The White House's adventures in wonderland

Nov 03,2022 - Last updated at Nov 03,2022

STANFORD  —  President Joe Biden’s administration is not serving US economic, energy, or national security when it issues unrealistic statements and assessments of what each requires. While every administration exaggerates to some extent, misleading claims have become more problematic in today’s changing policymaking environment.

I am not talking about embarrassing misjudgments, like the administration’s costly belief that rising inflation was “transitory”. Political misinformation falls along a spectrum, from the Biden administration repeatedly defending ridiculous statements (the Afghan withdrawal was a success) and shifting blame (expensive gas is due to “Putin’s price hike”) to his predecessors Donald Trump cherry-picking pandemic data and Bill Clinton relying on semantic obfuscation.

Most recently, Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have repeatedly asserted that America’s southern border is secure, even though they know perfectly well that it is not. The administration’s own delayed data release late last month reveals a record-shattering 2.4 million border-patrol encounters for the fiscal year, plus an estimated half-million illegal migrants who evaded an encounter.

Squandering credibility is a high price to pay for temporary relief from political pain. Presidents Richard Nixon and Clinton were badly damaged for lying about their scandals, and each is now properly remembered as much for that as for what he accomplished in office. That is a shame, because both presidents had notable achievements. Nixon, aided by Henry Kissinger, ably pursued a diplomatic opening with China, driving a wedge in the Sino-Soviet relationship. And Clinton, after a crushing midterm election defeat, successfully worked with congressional Republicans to balance the budget and reform welfare.

Both episodes have become newly salient now that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have entered into a partnership “without limits”, and now that pollsters are predicting that Republicans will retake the House of Representatives, and perhaps the Senate, in this month’s midterm elections.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has at this point normalized the practice of cherry-picking data. Thus, Biden claims that “We’ve reduced the deficit,” even though his policies are adding trillions of dollars to the debt; and he can attribute inflation to Putin, even though the year-on-year rate was already 7 per cent before the war in Ukraine.

The Biden administration has also made innumerate claims about its climate policies. Notwithstanding what may have happened anyway in the long transition to clean energy, Biden says his policies will create millions of good jobs, while conveniently ignoring the fact that many high-paying jobs in the traditional energy sector are being destroyed. Just ask the workers from the pipeline projects that he canceled soon after taking office.

Moreover, the idea that fossil fuels can be rapidly phased out has led to all kinds of problems, including unbalanced grids, rolling blackouts, and shortages of the kind that are forcing Germany to return to importing coal. Biden claims that his policies have not hindered supply, and yet he previously touted his decision to kill pipelines and drilling leases. Does anyone in the administration know anything about the basics of energy? Owing to natural field decline and the long timeframes from exploration to production, massive investments are needed to prevent bleak winters.

Making matters worse, Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, has delayed the construction of new export terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG), because the Democratic Party’s activist base wants American fossil fuels to remain in the ground. In doing so, he has helped squander the geopolitical opportunity offered by America’s fracking revolution, which could help Europe wean itself off Russian energy.

Yes, since the start of the war in Ukraine, Biden has correctly pivoted away from his anti-LNG stance; but that won’t immediately increase supply. And by making “climate change” an “all of government” priority, Biden is risking substantial collateral damage to the economy, national security, and America’s geopolitical position.

Anyone with basic factual knowledge could have foreseen this disaster, which has been made worse by Putin’s withholding of energy from Europe. But far too many citizens are now misinformed about energy and environmental policies, especially about the scale and costs involved in overhauling the energy system. Technical points about gigawatts and hydrocarbon reserves do not register with the general public. Moreover, while the risks from climate change are real, estimates of how much temperature rises as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases in worst-case scenarios are somewhat lower than what the public has been led to believe.

The US needs a new policymaking approach that considers the full range of benefits and costs. It makes no sense to think of economic security, energy security, and national security separately. Policies designed to achieve any of these goals must account, realistically, not wishfully, for the effects on the others.

The US Department of Defense’s mission to deter a war, and to fight and win one, if necessary, is too important to be jeopardised or politicised by White House climate czars. Nor should US environmental policymakers be pressuring the World Bank (whose mission is to combat poverty) to withhold fossil-fuel financing. Ultimately, that would be counterproductive to sustaining any sensible environmental policies, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which is essential to drive decarbonisation over the long term. This is not just conjecture. Poll after poll has shown that whenever there are any big economic disruptions, concerns about the environment and climate plummet down the public’s list of concerns.

Elected leaders will need to make difficult choices for the foreseeable future on defence budgets, social programmes, taxes, strategies to combat inflation, energy and environmental policies, measures to help the least fortunate, and countering foreign aggression. More broadly, they must restore citizens’ faith in the superiority of capitalist democracy.

After the end of the Cold War, such an agenda seemed easier, if not inevitable. But those days are gone. Policymakers today are confronted with choices that are both harder and more urgent. The situation demands more facts and truth telling, and less spin and wishful thinking.

 

Michael J. Boskin, professor of Economics at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, was chairman of George H.W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. 

www.project-syndicate.org

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