What the Gulf Oil Spill Can Teach Us About School Spending

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

We’re watching a slow-motion disaster unfold in the Gulf, as BP and Transoceanic fumble around with booms, siphons, and talk of “junk shots” while hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil a day spew into the Gulf. Our attention is focused on public hearings and how to contain the damage. Fair enough.

But we might want to take a moment to think about how we got here. We’re drilling in deep-water and, at least up until a few weeks ago, were aiming to do a lot more of it because of our enormous appetite for crude oil. Perhaps the most elegant solution to this dilemma was offered back in 1993 by the Clinton Administration, when it proposed to help balance the budget by taxing Americans for the energy they actually consumed (this was Gore’s “BTU” tax). The proposal would have used simple price incentives, rather than heavy-handed rules or mandates, to curb our energy appetite and ensure that the cost of oil more accurately reflected its actual social cost.

Of course, the BTU proposal went down, just as most calls to raise gas taxes typically do. So, today, we’ve wound up with massive ethanol subsidies and with Congress debating a convoluted “cap-and-trade” scheme–all so our elected officials can do something about energy without it being so transparent as directly raising our costs at the pump. Now, having failed to do anything to address the root causes, we are constantly on the march for more fuel (hello “drill, baby, drill!” and alliances with unsavory Middle Eastern monarchies). These measures are inevitably only short-term solutions (even a major offshore oil well will typically supply only a fraction of one percent of our oil needs for a limited period of time) and each creates new risks, but it’s an easier course than actual self-discipline. So we avoid making tough choices, again. Because we refuse to restrain ourselves, we’re still confronting our voracious appetite as well as these horrific consequences.

Now, analogies are always a tricky business because they depend on one’s angle of vision. But, if you’re standing where I am, this looks like a disheartening parallel to the world of school spending. There are crises brewing offshore: underfunded pensions and health care systems, unsustainable promises, and a delivery model that can only envision improvement if vast new sums are committed. That party train is eventually going to come crashing to a halt. Yet, instead of finding ways to address the root maladies, we’re flailing about for new ways to prop up an undisciplined and unaffordable system. Rather than finally taking our bitter medicine, ARRA borrowed $100 billion to kick the can down the road on school spending. And Senator Tom Harkin, with the administration’s vocal support, is proposing another $23 billion for the same purpose. Meanwhile, rather than embracing the opportunity and the challenge, superintendents are begging for waivers and new revenues that can help them forestall tough choices.

For me, the big lesson is that it’s better and wiser to suck it up and deal with causes. We’re going to have to pay the piper eventually anyway, so isn’t it better to do so before states are eyeballing bond defaults and we’ve little energy left for anything other than blame-casting and public hearings? Indeed, the penalty for procrastinating on hard choices in a case like this is that we often end up with the worst of both worlds.

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