Letter to the Editor
I would like to preface my opinion by stating that I am not one who denies the existence of global warming, or one who feels that sustainability is an ambiguous cause far from achievement. On the contrary, I embrace the green movement and have taken strides to make differences in my own habits to live a more sustainable life, as well as promoting these sentiments on campus through various service projects and last year as president of Greeks Go Green. However, it was difficult to ignore the protectionist attitude of last week’s oil-dependency piece, (Decrease in oil dependency needed, Oct. 5, 2010). While reducing oil dependency is a sensible idea for environmental reasons, it does not make economic sense to defend said reductions on the grounds of helping the U.S. economy by limiting trade. This so-called “wise” gesture is nothing but protectionism under a patriotic label. Protectionist measures are not profitable economic decisions, and countries that have tried implementing such policies have quickly realized the negative impacts felt by trade embargoes and import reductions (i.e., the United States post-Smoot-Hawley, 1930; China’s Great Famine under Mao Tse Tung, etc).
Before we evaluate the environmental reasons, let’s look to economics. David Ricardo (famed British political-economist of the 19th century, noted for his contributions to the field including his namesake Ricardian equivalence, the theory of labor value, and theory of Comparative Advantage) was a noted influence to future philosophers, political scientists and economists of the day, most notably John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. Ricardo’s most noted addition to the field of economics was his theory of Comparative Advantage. It states, in short, that a country will produce what it produces most efficiently, and will trade with other countries for goods that they cannot produce as effectively. Specialization is key in his theory, as well as the idea that trade is mutually beneficial. Again, in non-economist terms, this means that countries make what they’re the best at making and trade helps everyone in the long run. Why does trade help everyone? Countries are able to consume more when they export and import than their consumption level would be if they only exported. Basically, there is a reason we are no longer cavemen that hunt our own food, prepare our own food, and make our own clothing — even the pioneers on the American frontier eventually opened general stores to supply themselves. But how does this relate to every environmentalist’s favorite dirty word — Oil? The countries we currently trade with for oil are good at making oil. If we were to produce our own oil, its production would not be as effective as production abroad. We don’t have the capacity (or the oil for the matter) to even attempt such a feat. We can’t even successfully drill a hole in the Caribbean without affecting an entire region’s economy and half the coastline of the contiguous United States.
The United States is often thought of as an import-centered country. However, the U.S. does export a large amount of goods and services. Some of the top goods that the U.S. exports include aircraft, automobiles, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals, and the U.S. exports many services through its increasingly white-collar economy as well. President Obama has promised in recent speeches that one of his policy goals is to increase exports and create over 2 million jobs in the process. In light of the political relations that are often associated with imports and exports, you often have to export in order to import. And as I said earlier, trade needs to be mutually beneficial for it to even occur. But this isn’t about finding domestic oil or about personal politics so let us consider the alternatives in energy that could be produced instead of oil.
One item seen all over the news recently is the 2011 Chevy Volt, one of the first domestically produced electric cars. Aside from the controversy over its high price tag (MSRP: $41,000) and the government bailout money that funded this project, the car is unique in its ability to be plugged into household electrical outlets, not freestanding charge stations. The lithium-ion battery that powers the Volt is an oil-alternative championed by many as another answer to our impending energy crisis. Where exactly does lithium come from? South America and China, most frequently. There are nearly equivalent political problems trading with these regions as those that arise from trading with Middle Eastern oil-exporting countries. We often only address the Middle East as being big, bad, oil-producing bullies, but nobody else seems to have the slightest problem with every single neighborhood Citgo supporting Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan government! Not that I have anything against either region, but we have a strongly held Middle Eastern-bias in this country.
Another popular oil alternative is the domestically producible corn-based ethanol. This comes with its own problems, namely the vast quantities of agriculture required for its production, the energy-intensive nature of production and its expensive price tag. It would cost the United States (assuming ethanol was produced at home) a healthy percentage of our agriculture to produce realistic amounts of ethanol for ourselves domestically, not to mention the fact that ethanol requires more energy to produce than is actually derived from its usage.
I hope I do not come across as a mere critic of any form of alternative energy or a skeptic that doubts the growing threat of climate change. I closely follow the work of the United Nations and support the progressive efforts made in the past few years to further research and find solutions for climate change through facilitated talks such as the Copenhagen conference, Montreal Protocol and Kyoto Protocol. However, I realize that every alternative form of energy comes with its own problems, and that the United States, particularly in light of recent economic hardships, should be wary in any major overhauls of trade partners or trade policies. The United Nations stands against barriers to free trade and protectionist measures worldwide. The answer to oil dependency is NOT to close ourselves off to the rest of the world, but rather to serve as an inspiration and role model in our actions. By recognizing the successes of other countries (including those we are not always so friendly with) we can promote sustainability, reduce the impacts of climate change and hopefully, someday, turn to viable oil alternatives.
If you are interested in learning more about protectionism and how it affects the American economy, but don’t quite feel like committing to an extensive study, I highly recommend the short read, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism by Russell D. Roberts. There are also a variety of courses offered at Rider that focus on international relations and the effects of constant globalization, including ECO 305 International Trade and Investment, POL 215 Global Politics, POL 225 Nationalism in World Politics, GLS 201 The Politics of the Global Economy, and POL 295 Model United Nations, amongst others.
– Ally Watson
Senior economics and political science major