The Price of Cynical Politics

There's a long tradition of running for public office by running against government. Not just against the people currently in power, but the motives, competency and even legitimacy of government action itself. For a recent example, tune into this fall's presidential primary debates.

But there's a very high cost to the cynicism this breeds.

When people hear constantly that government action is the problem, they become less willing to support serious solutions - even in cases when smart government policy is an indispensable part of the answer.

Climate change, for instance, is a global problem that can't be solved only by individual action. As much as some want to do the right thing, they can't make enough progress when the rules favor high-carbon, dirty energy.

Which means we need to change the law - and that, of course, requires public support.

I think many Americans would be willing to make changes in the way we use energy, even if it meant small sacrifices, to ensure that our children inherit a clean, healthy world. But if they're convinced that any proposed program to limit pollution won't work - because they're constantly told government does everything wrong - they won't support solutions. And that means the elected officials who represent them won't either.

Some will ask why there needs to be government rules, instead of just letting the marketplace fix the problem. Well, it's because the market is a powerful tool for generating prosperity, but it's not perfect. It can't stop companies from dumping pollution in the air - because they benefit by shifting the cost of clean-up, health problems, and other impacts to the taxpayers.

(And some, of course, will ask if there's really a climate problem to be solved. For that, I refer you to NASA and all major American scientific organizations.)

So do federal environmental programs work? Yes. In fact, they work spectacularly well. Not only is our air and water dramatically cleaner than it was before the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other major programs, but the economic benefits have been outstanding. The benefits of the Clean Air Act, for instance, have outweighed the costs by 30 to 1. So our cities aren't choked with smog, our rivers aren't chemical sewers, and achieving it was a great bargain.

The good news is that more people are calling for action to cut climate pollution - 2 out of 3 of Americans support the EPA's Clean Power Plan - and their leaders are starting to sense the shift. Those who oppose action are having to change their rhetoric to avoid seeming out of touch, and those who want progress are becoming bolder, feeling the political advantage.

But that doesn't mean the fight over comprehensive climate legislation in Congress will be easy, when it comes. We will again hear voices complaining that government action is inherently a bad thing, and we are powerless to save ourselves from this man-made disaster.

So it will be the job of those who support climate action to say, yes - we can use smartly designed government policies to make our world better.

@RealKeithGaby on Twitter

Photo credit: Steevven1/Creative Commons