The Triumph of Hope over Reality

by HERBERT LONDON December 22, 2009
President Obama went to Copenhagen with proclamations about reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the first time in more than a decade that an American administration has offered even a tentative proposal to reduce production of so-called climate-altering gases, the spinmeisters in the White House have announced.
But what do these proclamations mean? Five major nations, India, China, South Africa, Brazil and the United States, forged a climate deal that doesn’t legally commit any of the nations to gas emission targets. The deal asks the parties involved to list how they will cap emissions with set amounts, among other general and vague goals. Friends of the Earth tore into the arrangement as “a sham agreement with no real requirements.” Moreover, the conference also turned into a “bash capitalism” festival. The biggest applause line came when Hugo Chávez among others said capitalism accounts for global warming and socialism is the cure.
In effect, the Copenhagen meeting has been transmogrified into a giant extortion racket with the poor nations demanding a payoff for the profligacy of the West, a profligacy that accounts, in their febrile minds, for the problem. The president of the Sudan had the audacity to suggest that the $140 billion the U.S. offered to deal with global warming in the developing world was “not enough.” In addition, such stalwart leaders as Robert Mugabe and Chávez have demanded funding to deal with the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in their respective nations, nations that have wantonly exploited environmental integrity.
The absurdity of the posturing in Copenhagen demonstrates a great deal about the hubris in the developing world, the naiveté of this administration and an inability to distinguish between hope and reality. It has often been said that one of the great lies of our time is, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” I guess there may have been times when the government has helped. The problem, of course, is that most issues are local and Washington is far away in distance and emotion, and Copenhagen is now a center for political rhetoric, not for addressing issues.
Just as William Buckley once said “I’d rather be ruled by the first 100 names in the Boston telephone directory rather than the Harvard faculty,” it is also the case that Harvard faculty, metaphorically of course, ends up in Washington and does make judgments for the country. And as one might guess, hope invariably trumps reality.
The entire health care bill is also predicated on hope: hope that the expense can be absorbed without rationing; hope that adding the uninsured to the hospital rolls will not lead to an additional expense and hope that the elderly who need care will still be able to receive it after Medicare is cut by $455 billion. Congressional Budget Office estimates provide a reality check which suggests none of these hopes can be realized.
The government promised the American people that a $787 billion stimulus bill would create or save 3 million jobs, a number that gets smaller in size each week. Yet the unemployment rate has gone from 8 percent when the bill was enacted to over 10 percent at the moment. There were, of course, many detractors who argued that this stimulus is little more than pork barrel legislation that cannot possibly influence the unemployment rate. It seems these people were right. But does the government care? It operates on hope and continues to contend the stimulus is working.
Perhaps the administration thinks their decision moves us closer to a solution for the dubious proposition of global warming. I’m sure they believe their actions will do so. But first the problem should be well understood. Exaggerated claims must be addressed. And most significantly, the president should say that extortion is something Americans don’t countenance. We should not transfer $140 billion dollars to satisfy feelings of guilt or to justify the manifestations of capitalism. Our economic engine benefitted the entire world. That is nothing for which we should apologize, nor is it a condition that warrants an extortion payment.
One of the first rules of public policy should be: Don’t let hope trump reality. I only wish this administration in its legislative overreach and the crowd in Copenhagen had taken this advice seriously. Contributing Editor Herbert London is president of Hudson
Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books).

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