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Don't touch that thermostat!
(I want to get reelected)
In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter addressed the American people. Oil prices had skyrocketed in the previous several years, contributing to inflation that weakened the American economy and sapped popular confidence in America's future.
Carter struggled to get a grip on what ailed the country. In his speech, he identified key symptoms. "For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years," he said, referring to polls. "Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world."
Americans had lost faith in democracy, and in each other, Carter said. Focusing on the energy issue, he asked, "Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?"
Carter said he felt compelled to take action. He laid out a six-point program, mostly of measures by the government to conserve existing energy supplies and develop alternatives.
But his sixth point required the participation of the American people. "I'm asking you, for your good and your nation's security, to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel." Carter said, "Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense. I tell you it is an act of patriotism."
Carter's speech fell flat. Far from rising to the president's challenge, Americans mocked him for having the nerve to ask them for sacrifice. Carter's address was quickly labeled the "malaise speech," even though he didn't use that word. Ronald Reagan was gearing up to challenge Carter in 1980, and Reagan declared that leadership consisted of solving problems, not foisting them on the American people.
Reagan defeated Carter, who became a cautionary example to his successors. Reagan took care not to repeat Carter's mistake of asking Americans for sacrifice. Reagan had campaigned on promises to shrink government by cutting taxes and spending. In office he accomplished the easy part of this pairing, persuading Congress to reduce American tax rates. Everyone likes lower taxes. But when trouble arose on the hard part - cutting spending, including on programs many people cherished - Reagan threw in the towel. The result was a doubling of the federal debt in Reagan's eight years in office.
Ever since, elected officials and candidates have been loath to ask Americans to sacrifice anything, however small. And now the costs of this lack of courage are coming due. Numerous approaches have been suggested to deal with the mounting problem of climate change. The government has subsidized solar energy and electric cars and promoted other technical measures to reduce carbon emissions.
But simple, straightforward and immediately effective actions like driving fewer miles, taking fewer airplane trips, and adjusting thermostats down in winter and up in summer get short shrift, if any shrift at all. And the rare proposals that do call for sacrifice invariably push that sacrifice off on future generations.
Economists know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Politicians have figured out that lunch might as well be free if you can get someone else to pay for it. The American people have not figured out that they are the ones who will do the paying, if not now then later, when the cost will likely be much higher.