All the talk about the “1 percent” and the “47 percent” have created the impression that this Presidential election will be a matter of rich versus poor, people who pay taxes versus people who collect government benefits, the top of the economic ladder against the bottom.
But this is not entirely true. One constituency that is very important to the Democrat President — and has enormous influence over its economic policies — is that small slice of the population that embraces full-fledged environmentalism.
Perhaps the signature accomplishment of the Obama Administration has been its opposition to large energy and industrial projects. The President has blocked the Keystone Pipeline, which would have brought a million barrels of oil to Texas refineries. His administration has shrunk the leasing of federal oil lands and slowed offshore drilling to a crawl. Its Environmental Protection Agency has closed down coal plants and constantly making noise about cracking down on fracking for natural gas.
Say what you will about the 47 percent who don’t pay taxes or the people who depend on food stamps, housing vouchers and Social Security Disability benefits, it is certainly not their concerns that are being expressed by these government actions.
Yet even as President Obama has pursued the most aggressive environmental agenda in history, attempting to regulate carbon emissions and cracking down on fossil fuels, the nation’s environmental enthusiasts have remain largely unsatisfied. They are upset because he licensed two new nuclear reactors. They want to close down Vermont Yankee and Indian point, even if it leaves the northeast short of electricity. They are currently sponsoring a referendum in San Francisco to tear down the Hetch Hetchy Dam, even though it provides the City by the Bay with 25 percent of its water and 40 percent of its electricity.
Environmentalists proclaim that they only oppose these technologies because they envision a new world built on wind and solar energy. Yet when it comes to implementing these visions, they end up equally opposed. Environmentalists are already suing to stop President Obama’s plans for solar installations in the California desert. In Vermont, activists have already laid down in front of bulldozers to prevent construction of the windmills that are supposed to replace Vermont Yankee. After a certain point, you have to ask, “Exactly what do these people want?”
The answer was provided by early 20th century sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his famous book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. In a largely forgotten chapter called “Industrial Exemption,” Veblen posed the question, “Why is it that people who have benefited most from industrial society are often the most violently opposed to its further expansion?”
The answer, he said, is that as people grow more affluent, they eventually reach a point where it becomes less important for them to acquire more wealth and more important simply to prevent others from achieving what they already have.
This is what environmentalism is all about. It is an aristocratic attitude, long honed in the upper reaches of European society, which says that “trade” is something to be looked down upon and that there are “higher things in life than the mere accumulation of material possessions.” Easy enough to say when you’ve already got all you want.
But it’s worse than that. Veblen warned that a combination of this aristocratic disdain for industrial progress and an ill-informed proletariat that had no real understanding for business but simply resented businessmen as “the rich,” could form a lethal tandem to undermine any advanced society. This alliance between the top and the bottom would squeeze the productive middle classes that produce most of the wealth.
That is what we are seeing in the current Presidential Election. The growing numbers of people who are dependent on the government may succeed in reelecting President Obama. But it will be the upper-crust agenda of opposition to further industrial development that will be put into effect.