Do we need “Post-Partisan Power”?

Michael Giberson

Last week scholars from the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institutions, and the Breakthrough Institute joined together to release “Post-Partisan Power,” (more here) a paper advocating substantial increases in federal spending on energy research and development in pursuit of goals including American economic growth, national security, and health and safety.

They lost me at “partisan.” Well, almost. But it seems like a fundamental mistake to define one’s vision for reforming the energy economy primarily by relation to party politics. Maybe I’m out of touch with real world politics in which key players pull the right levers and actually get things done in these trying times for Americans, or something like that.

And if anything, “post-partisan” seems worse than partisan.  It is an attempt to sound high minded, in a “let’s rise above the fray” sort of way, but it signals a policy too weak to survive ordinary open political competition so they attempt to bypass the ugly business of politicking. THEM: “Let’s put aside our petty partisan bickering and just do it our way.” ME: “But why not put aside our petty partisan bickering and just do it my way?” THEM: “There you go again with your petty partisan bickering. Put that aside and let’s just do it our way.” ME: “???”

Maybe I’m too wound up in the title. It’s just a title after all. Let’s go to the paper.

First sentence: “American energy policy is at a standstill.”

Wait, what? CAFE standards are rising, the EPA just issued new ethanol policies and some ethanol policies are set for (beneficial) expiration at the end of the year, Cash for Clunkers has come and gone, offshore oil and gas development regulations are changing, several states are exploring cap-and-trade policies on greenhouse gas emissions, many states have renewable power mandates, we have extensive Production Tax Credits for renewable power, and recently allowed Investment Tax Credits and cash grants in lieu of tax credits for renewable power, we still have a U.S. military presence in Iraq, and we haven’t finished implementing all of the energy policy programs contained in the first stimulus package passed in 2009. Heck, I suspect we haven’t finished implementing all of the programs in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

I suspect they are using the term “standstill” to mean “so far our favored approach isn’t going anywhere.”

Okay, I’m ranting not analyzing. But maybe now that I’ve got this rant out of my system, I’ll be able to return to “Post-Partisan Power” with a fresh eye and an open mind. Maybe I’ll be able to get past the first sentence before I dismiss the whole effort. Maybe, but it will have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, if you want more substantive criticism of the article, try Dan Cole’s post at Law, Economics, and Cycling. Alternatively, if you’d rather have some less substantive commentary on “Post-partisan power,” try David Leonhardt’s column in the New York Times.

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4 thoughts on “Do we need “Post-Partisan Power”?

  1. Would be interested in your thoughts as an economist once you’ve read. I’ve historically found Breakthrough maddening, because of their bias towards R&D in CO2 reduction at the expense of markets. What little I know of this latest paper is that it is more of the same; “post-partisan” in this context being code for “market-based CO2 regulation failed for partisan reasons, so let’s go back to R&D”.

    Without disparaging the need for R&D, that strikes me at core as a fundamentally anti-market approach to CO2 and energy regulation. Curious to hear if your take is different.

  2. You may be ranting, but AEI/Brookings often provoke that reaction from me (see my recent comments on your CAFE post, for example) so I can’t but agree.

  3. Tom, I mean to get back to your CAFE reaction, but have a busy week going. Maybe I’ll return to it early next week. Feel free to needle me on CAFE anytime I mention it.

  4. I have to agree with your complaints about this idea of “post-partisan” (or even bi-partisan) being good by definition. I wrote about this in my book Rediscovering Fire.

    The “economic democracy” envisioned for the Soviet Union was the pinnacle of post-partisan decision-making, as it took place within a one-party state. Still, in mixed economies with populist public sentiment, “partisan bickering,” “obstructionism,” and “gridlock” are often targets. The unspoken assumption is that both parties should just come together, put disagreements aside, and push through new legislation (generally to place more of the economy under public control). This sentiment is reminiscent of the socialist ideal of coming together to “administer our common property.”

    One of socialism’s selling points was the unity of working toward a common goal. In the Soviet elections,
    “[The people] are not consciously settling big issues of national policy, nor are they even directly choosing legislators. They are choosing average, trustworthy citizens, who will see that the administrative machine of the city runs efficiently for the common good of the working population. The atmosphere of the election and, indeed, of debates in the Soviets themselves, is strangely remote from “politics” as Western democracies conceive them. A big family, animated by a single purpose, sits down on these occasions to administer its common property. ” (Brailsford, How the Soviets Work)

    This sentiment underlies the calls for post-partisan cooperation in mixed economies too. For example, Harry Reid (D-NV) recently called 2009 one of the most “productive spans of legislative work since the Great Depression.” He argued for working together “as Americans” to fight the economic downturn. “Only by working together—not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans—can we put the jobless back to work, make sure everyone can afford to stay healthy and create a clean-energy economy for this new century,” Reid wrote. “Only if we work as partners, not as partisans, can we preserve the American dream for so many Nevadans who fear losing their homes.”

    Despite the popular criticism of “partisan bickering,” checks and balances play an important role, and competition between parties is a significant part of checks and balances. It does not make sense to “come together” on policy unless the policy is correct—efficient and capable of fulfilling its proposed ends. If, for example, a policy hurts the minority badly, but aids or does not affect the majority, it is still more likely pass if there is not long and healthy debate.

    Sometimes the call for cooperation goes even beyond the legislature. John Flynn wrote about Roosevelt’s views on the courts:
    “His conception of the structure of government was never really clear. The independence of the courts is something which all parties had accepted as a matter of course. Yet Roosevelt could suggest to Chief Justice Hughes that it might be well if Hughes discussed controversial constitutional decisions with him while he would discuss proposed legislation with the Chief Justice. The veriest law tyro would see the impropriety of this. Yet Roosevelt, in telling of the incident, described Hughes’ coolness to his suggestion as evidence of the Court’s “unwillingness to cooperate.”
    (John Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth)

    Again, the extreme version of this reveals the wrongheadedness of this approach. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn described the communist judicial vision:

    “On the threshold of the classless society, we were at last capable of realizing the conflictless trial—a reflection of the absence of inner conflict in our social structure—in which not only the judge and the prosecutor but also the defense lawyers and the defendants themselves would strive collectively to achieve their common purpose.”

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