Another Speech Worth Noticing: Obama in Pittsburgh

By James Fallows

I don't know whether this was broadcast in the US -- on a trip in Asia again, Tokyo at the moment -- but I have just now read Barack Obama's speech today at Carnegie-Mellon, about science, technology, and economic growth.

Like many of his other speeches I've mentioned before -- for instance here and here -- this one was not particularly flashy or notable sentence-by-sentence. Think about it: you can remember a large number of entire speeches or speech-events that Obama has given ("race" speech, convention speeches, inaugural address, Cairo/Islam speech, Prague/nukes speech, Nobel speech, etc), yet hardly any specific lines. But in keeping with his other most serious speeches, and in contrast with the typical politician's "turning now to domestic policy" laundry list, this one stands up fairly well as a logical construction. I would paraphrase its logic as follows:

      1. We are only beginning to recover from one disaster/emergency, in the world's financial system; and we're still in the midst of another one, with the BP oil catastrophe;
      2. In the short run, we have to deal with those emergencies as emergencies;
      3. But in the long it would be criminal (not his word) to fail to correct the underlying disorders that caused each crisis;
      4. In the economic realm, that means not just dealing with the rigged financial markets but also making sure that we address some of the big, structural issues that will either keep the US economy growing or bring it down;
      5. Those include managing health care costs, improving education, and investing in fundamental science;
      6. Private industry obviously is what makes our economy run, and what will create the business models to solve these problems;
      7. But just as obviously, the government has to play an active part -- in setting standards, investing in basic research and "public goods," containing what any sane observer sees as the self-destructive excesses of the market, and promoting the next big waves of technology growth as it has done for all previous ones through the nation's history;
      8. This includes taking an active role in shifting the U.S. economy away from its environmentally and strategically damaging dependence on oil in particular, and the way to use market energies toward that end is through a carbon tax.

Item #8 on the list above is actual "news," as far as I know, at least in this clear a statement. (Update: he actually said "carbon price," not "tax" -- similar concept, different detail, and apparently not first time he's said it. But highlighting this way is significant. Rundown by David Roberts at here.) And what better time than when oil is gushing into the sea. Obama's explicit laying out of point #7 is different, in its completeness, from what I have heard him do before. After the jump, a few sample paragraphs illustrating points #7 and #8. I'm not saying, read the whole speech. But its existence is worth noting.

On point #7:

I understand these arguments [against government over-reach]. And it's reflected in my policies....

But I also understand that throughout our nation's history, we have balanced the threat of overreaching government against the dangers of an unfettered market. We've provided a basic safety net, because any one of us might experience hardship at some time in our lives and may need some help getting back on our feet. And we've recognized that there have been times when only government has been able to do what individuals couldn't do and corporations wouldn't do.

That's how we have railroads and highways, public schools and police forces. That's how we've made possible scientific research that has led to medical breakthroughs like the vaccine for Hepatitis B, and technological wonders like GPS. That's how we have Social Security and a minimum wage, and laws to protect the food we eat and the water we drink and the air that we breathe. That's how we have rules to ensure that mines are safe and, yes, that oil companies pay for the spills that they cause.

Now, there have always been those who've said no to such protections; no to such investments. There were accusations that Social Security would lead to socialism, and that Medicare was a government takeover. There were bankers who claimed the creation of federal deposit insurance would destroy the industry. And there were automakers who argued that installing seatbelts was unnecessary and unaffordable. There were skeptics who thought that cleaning our water and our air would bankrupt our entire economy. And all of these claims proved false. All of these reforms led to greater security and greater prosperity for our people and our economy....

On #8:

But the only way the transition to clean energy will ultimately succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future -- if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed. And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.

No, many businesses have already embraced this idea because it provides a level of certainty about the future. And for those that face transition costs, we can help them adjust. But if we refuse to take into account the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction -- if we don't factor in the environmental costs and the national security costs and the true economic costs -- we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future.

The House of Representatives has already passed a comprehensive energy and climate bill, and there is currently a plan in the Senate -- a plan that was developed with ideas from Democrats and Republicans -- that would achieve the same goal. And, Pittsburgh, I want you to know, the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months. (Applause.) I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. (Applause.) I will work with anyone to get this done -- and we will get it done.

The next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century. We are not going to move backwards. We are going to move forward.

This overarching principle -- that we must invest in and embrace the innovation and technology of the future and not the past -- that applies beyond our energy policy. [Transition to next theme...]

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