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Economic and environmental perspective on President Reagan on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth

Amid all the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, it is important to note that his two-term presidency kindled a philosophy that has undermined governance in the United States, run in the opposite direction from a sustainable economy, and exhibited hostility toward a clean energy basis for the global economy. This was not, however, a strategy shared broadly by the Republican Party at that time.

The bipartisanship in Congress in the 1970s, under both Republican and Democrat presidents, enabled the passage of 30 major environmental laws – laws that established the United States as the world leader in the quest for clean air and clean water. Congress set a framework of decision making in the federal government to ensure that long-range and short-range environmental impacts were integrated into economic decision making and that alternatives to proposed governmental actions were evaluated. Other nations looked up to America as a pace-setter on energy and the environmental policy, and they adopted a number of our new laws for their own use.

President Nixon signed the keystone law for environmental protection, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and he appointed as heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality two highly qualified Republicans, Bill Ruckelshaus and Russell Train, who believed in the mission of these agencies.

Had the 1980 election turned out differently, the United States might have become a clean energy pioneer. And the emerging field of ecological economics might have taken center stage as the producer of policies for a sustainable economy. With the election of President Reagan, however, these hopes were dashed.

America had experienced the oil crisis of 1973, memorable for its long gasoline lines. As a result of that experience, citizens across the nation were moving forward with innovative measures to save energy and develop renewable energy technologies. In this spirit, President Carter had placed solar panels on the White House roof. America, many of us thought, was poised to lead the world in a clean energy revolution. Reagan had other ideas. He had the solar collectors removed from the White House and gave the green light for all-out exploitation of fossil fuels. Reagan’s idea of environmental stewardship was clearing brush and picking up fallen branches.

When Reagan took office in 1981, he appointed anti-environment zealots James Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Ann Gorsuch as Administrator of EPA. Ann Gorsuch carried out a Machiavellian plan to prevent much from happening at EPA as she repeatedly rearranged the office spaces at the agency. During her 22 months as agency head, she cut the budget of the EPA by over 20%, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, relaxed Clean Air Act regulations, and facilitated the spraying of restricted-use pesticides. She cut the total number of agency employees just as its responsibilities were doubling and hired staff from the very industries they were supposed to be regulating. Rita Lavelle, an Assistant Administrator of EPA, was convicted on federal charges of perjury related to irregularities and the misuse of federal cleanup money at a big hazardous waste dump, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

But the greatest damage of all came from Reagan’s repeated message to the American people that government is the problem, that government is not good but evil, that government hinders the free enterprise system. By appointing people who didn’t really believe in government or in the constitutionality of the agencies they were running, he produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reagan fully embraced the economics of Milton Friedman, the antithesis of Herman Daly’s steady state economics. Friedman’s economics of deregulation sought to undo the safeguards put in place following the Great Depression, and in so doing, paved the way for the global financial scandal that precipitated the crisis of 2008 and governmental bailouts of the private sector.

Looking to the future, the U.S. government is being confronted by the ironic (for a so-called conservative) legacy of George W. Bush – a massive and growing deficit. The Tea Party freshmen legislators are fighting to hold the Republican leadership to its promise to cut $100 billion from the federal budget; however, getting there is proving elusive for them. Coming to the rescue in this dire situation is the Green Scissors plan of Friends of the Earth and Taxpayers for Common Sense. The Green Scissors plan shows how to obtain $200 billion in savings between 2011 and 2015 by getting rid of government subsidies to the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries, and by scrapping some boondoggle water development schemes of the Army Corps of Engineers and a handful of absurd highway projects. In contrast to the outrage over some of the proposed Republican budget cuts, the Green Scissors cuts command popular support, because they save money while preventing environmental damage at the same time. It’s a plan that anyone, except maybe Ronald Reagan and his anti-environment appointees, would support.

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