Renewable Help (Harm Principle Modernized Pt. II)

I recently wrote about The Harm Principle and how there are relationships between the foundation of Mill’s theory and the potential of a new case of crimes against peace within the United Nations: ecocide. However, does this theory hold true throughout the United States three branches of government?

To review, the Harm Principle is a theory based on the involvement of government in the lives of individuals. It states that society has no right to infringe on the actions of an individual, unless the actions infringe on the liberties of other individuals – for example, the right to life, liberty and property. If the actions of one individual harm the liberties of another, society has the responsibility to intervene and protect democracy.

Let us look at the oil industry. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, oil prices saw a huge spike i180 n price per barrel as a result of OPEC’s oil embargo and the peak production of oil in the United States. The reaction of United States was to rely on a decade of subsidies and tax breaks to promote the development of more oil as opposed to using the opportunity for research in cleaner forms of energy. The turn of the decade brought about the promise of price stability with a few hiccups (Oil Price Shock of 1990). However, as oil prices began to rise at the end of the century, tax breaks and subsidies rose to keep those prices down, or at least stable. In fact, over the past three decades, we have seen around sixteen years of tax incentives on fossil fuels reaching three billion – seven of those years tax breaks reached six billion. Since the year 2000, we have seen nine years of subsidies reaching over 1.5 billion for fossil fuels.

(Take a closer and cleaner look at the Shifting Energy Tax Breaks Graph from the NY Times)

The oil industry has taken root in the American economy, but with the help of the United States government. Let us revisit Mill’s Harm Principle. Individuals have the right to act as they please – to produce oil. However, if their actions (such as drilling and burning oil for fuel) harm other individuals, society has the responsibility to intervene – not to subsidize and hold the oil industry’s hand through hard times.

If we look at the renewable energy industry, we can see that politicians are starting to get it. Journalist Robert Semple of the New York Times states, “many politicians have come to realize that fossil fuels exact big social costs, federal subsidies have swung slowly toward projects that produce wind and solar power.” However, subsidies and tax breaks for renewables remain young, very young. In fact, since 1980, renewables have seen only two years of incentives reaching over three billion – the only positive we may take from that is those two years were 2009 and 2010. Priorities may be starting to shift.

The case185 against this argument may be to do away with federal support for the energy industry altogether. Former Utah Governor and GOP Presidential candidate hopeful John Huntsman stated just this week that he wants to break up oil’s monopoly on the energy industry, by promoting alternative fuels. One way to do so, as Huntsman states, is to “systemically begin to eliminate every subsidy for energy companies, whether it be oil, natural gas, wind or solar.” While he followed this statement by endorsing hydraulic fracking as an alternative method – the idea is not all that crazy. The oil industry should no longer be given help for polluting our environment and driving social costs through the roof. My only response to Huntsman, neither should the natural gas industry.

Robert Semple put it best, “Oil and Gas had help. Why not Renewables?” Two years of subsidies and tax incentives, and one Solyndra type failure does not put into question government support for energy innovation – federal support for energy has always occurred. However, we should give renewables a chance and stop holding the oil industry’s hand. It does not need our help anymore. If the government wants to subsidize anything, compare the market, social and environmental costs of renewables vs. oil/natural gas and then gage if the government should intervene or not. John Huntsman may be surprised.


Re: Renewable Help (Harm Principle Modernized Pt. II)

From a domestic perspective mature industry should not need tax subsidies, but pundits often continue this argument by saying we should subsidize emerging industries. This allows other pundits to bring up Solyndra, which from my understanding went under not by mismanagement but because China subsidized their solar industry more than the U.S.. Politicians are often left with similar lose-lose situations: keep the banks afloat even if they caused their own demise or let them fail under your term. Although different in detail, these two examples show how hard it is to know what's right given our global entanglements.

Globalization has really been a wrench in the gears of policy makers. With very little effective global governance, widespread protectionism defeats any attempt to construct the free-market ideal that many economists support. Instead we have a global protectionist arms race - literally and metaphorically - promoting the expansion of empires. These empires expand by resource exploitation and cheap labor in export processing zones (EPZs, or free trade zones). Resource exploitation may never be justifiable but it's especially heinous now because of private externalization and socialized harm. EPZs, according to economy theory, could work if implemented on a grand scale but that would require strong global governance - the inherent capitalist motivation of empires. Historically, empires fail in the attempt because of the costs required to maintain control. But again, the inequality of such empires is self-defeating. Additionally, socialist/communist solutions have their own set of failures. What it comes down to, for me, is that industrial empires may just be inherently ephemeral. This is something very difficult for a politician, elected with industry campaign funding, to admit to constituents.

It's a mad, mad world. In theory the Occupy protests address such concerns. In practice we are likely to see a merely political statement, which is what the media wants anyway.

Ruscio, I recommend reading Immanuel Wallerstein, if you haven't already. Dr. Abye Assefa, sociology professor, was a student of his at Binghamton University and includes his works in social theory courses.