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How to Kill Cap-and-Trade

By Robert Tracinski

Since the Florida primary, when John McCain decisively pulled ahead and became the presumptive Republican nominee, I have argued
that the passage of some kind of "cap-and-trade" energy rationing scheme is inevitable. Since both McCain and Obama are firm supporters of cap-and-trade, we know that when Congress convenes next year, the new president will ask it to pass the legislation.

But it turns out that cap-and-trade, like Hillary Clinton, might not be inevitable after all.

A few weeks ago, the Senate refused to allow a version of cap-and-trade to come to a vote. The legislation was not expected to overcome a presidential veto, but the vote was supposed to serve as a show of strength by cap-and-trade advocates. The show of strength wasn't very strong. Only 48 senators voted to allow the bill to proceed, far short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Even that number is deceptively high, because ten of the 48 votes were cast by Democrats who oppose cap-and-trade. They flipped their votes only after they knew the legislation would not go forward, in order to save the Democratic leadership from the embarrassment of having the bill fail by a 46-38 vote against it.

Since then, while legislative momentum has stalled on passing "cap-and-trade," momentum is growing to lift restrictions on offshore oil drilling and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The policy now being advocated by many politicians, including McCain, is the exact opposite of cap-and-trade: drill-and-burn.

It seems that the first time Americans begin to experience anything like the economic consequences of global warming regulations -- $4-per-gallon gasoline is just a down payment on the green agenda -- they begin to have second thoughts about whether they really want to reduce their carbon footprints.

Can it really be that easy to defeat cap-and-trade-just to point out, "Hey, this will raise the price of gasoline"? Why does this argument work?

Invoking high gasoline prices works, not just because of the immediate pain it inflicts on politicians' constituents, but because it exploits a fundamental contradiction at the foundation of the current "green" fad.

The contradiction behind the green lifestyle fad is the idea that we can reject industrial civilization -- and the fuel that powers it -- while still enjoying a modern, prosperous, "First World" standard of living.

The more shallow followers of the green fad get around this contradiction through "greenwashing": finding a superficial "green" angle to rationalize buying expensive goods and living pretty much the same opulent lifestyle they enjoyed before. My favorite example is a magazine article on "green" houses that advocated buying more expensive, nicer-looking "architectural grade" asphalt roof shingles, because they won't have to be replaced as often and will therefore -- if you can follow this chain of reasoning -- use less resources over the long run. Maybe so, maybe not. But it gives well-off, upper-middle-class types an excuse not to feel guilty about telling the roofer to go with the upgrade.

Among more serious devotees, the green contradiction takes the form of endless, arbitrary debates about which lifestyle choices are really more-green-than-thou. They debate over whether to ask for paper or plastic bags at the grocery store, or whether to buy milk in glass jugs or cardboard cartons, and a whole host of other eco-theological conundrums that turn out to be more convoluted and harder to resolve than the debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

What both groups are trying to evade is that truly consistent environmentalism demands the sacrifice of all prosperity. The only genuine way to slash your "carbon footprint" is to stop consuming goods. The "lifestyle" it really demands is not about hemp bracelets, bamboo textile skirts, and reusable burlap grocery sacks-the entire Whole Foods scene. It's really about abject, Third World poverty.

That's why rising gas prices have hit the environmentalist movement so hard.

The green lifestyle boosters have told us that we can make a relatively painless transition to a green economy, and even benefit from new "green-collar jobs," by moving to "alternative fuels." This all sounds great when expressed in woozy generalities and vague promises-but then gas prices deliver the first taste of what the new green economy actually entails.

With many people complaining that gasoline is at $4 per gallon-a significant cost, especially for rural and blue-collar workers who drive low-gas-mileage trucks to work-the environmentalists cannot deny that they plan to drive the price even higher, as well as raising the cost of every other major source of energy.

The fact that rising gas prices hit the poor harder than the rich also opens up an internal fissure within the left: the unresolved contradiction between the Old Left and the New Left.

The Marxist-influenced Old Left believed in industrial socialism. Through "scientific" central planning, it was going to make industrial production even more efficient and lift the poor, exploited workers out of poverty.
When it began to become clear that central planning was a spectacular failure-that capitalism produced the actual rational planning that was bringing prosperity to the masses-recalcitrant, unreconstructed leftists did not embrace capitalism. Instead, they responded by rejecting industrial prosperity as a goal.

The result was the New Left. Since socialism had not been able to raise the people of what was then called the "Third World" out of a primitive lifestyle, the New Left declared instead that a primitive lifestyle is the ideal, and that we should try to emulate it here. The centerpiece of that campaign has been environmentalism.

But the New Left's vision of life as a noble savage is far less appealing than the Old Left's dream of a shining industrial utopia, so the transition from Old to New Left has never really been completed. The left still keeps offering to bring wealth and prosperity and good medical care to the masses-while ruminating on the virtues of life without toilet paper.

We can see this oscillation in their reaction to gas prices. In Old Left mode, congressional Democrats threaten to nationalize oil refineries in order to keep the flow of cheap gasoline coming. At the same time, the New York Times flips to New Left mode by celebrating high gas prices because they have led to a drastic drop in the production of SUVs.

To add to the dilemma, this is a choice between a discredited idea and an unappealing one. The Old Left can no longer plausibly promise to deliver prosperity by government fiat. (Does anyone really believe that nationalized oil refineries would produce gasoline at a lower cost than private ones?) Yet mainstream politicians don't dare openly embrace the New Left's philosophy by declaring themselves to be in favor of poverty.

Environmentalism has become a major cultural force. But to steal a line from the Marxists of the Old Left, it is a force that contains within it the internal contradictions that will lead to its destruction.

That will be a good thing to remember when "cap-and-trade" comes back up for a vote next year.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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