Start with education. In the 20th century, America allocated more capital to education than any other country in the world. This investment gave us the most highly educated and innovative workforce in the world, and it explains much of our economic dominance of the past century. But today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are falling behind. The United States ranks 27th out of the 29 most developed countries in the percentage of college students pursuing degrees in science or engineering, and we rank 48th out of 133 developed and developing countries in the quality of our math and science instruction.
Then consider the infrastructure that makes our economy efficient. In the last century, America allocated more capital to basic infrastructure than the rest of the world combined, which gave us the most extensive and efficient transportation, energy, and telecommunications systems in the world. But now we are falling behind in sustainable energy technologies that will provide the greatest economic efficiencies in the future. Our electric grid is based on technology that is more than 100 years old. The largest and fastest growing wind, solar, biofuels and other sustainable energy industries are in China, India, South Korea and Brazil.
So, what are our elected officials doing? How are they allocating our capital to ensure that we lead the world in math, science, engineering, energy independence, and economic competitiveness?
They are cutting teacher compensation and benefits, reducing funding for student financial aid, and eliminating modest investments in sustainable energy, while preserving billions of dollars in direct and indirect government subsidies for multinational oil and gas companies and the domestic coal industry.
Rational allocation of capital for the long term? I think not. The implications of these capital allocations are clear:
- Fewer of our best and brightest will choose careers as educators in math, science, and engineering
- Fewer of our best and brightest will be able to afford advanced degrees in math, science or engineering
- China, India, South Korea, Brazil, and others will outpace the US in sustainable energy job creation and other high-value job growth
- The US will continue to remain dependent primarily on fossil fuels, and our economy will suffer from periodic and unpredictable price volatility
One place to start is government subsidies for fossil fuels. It is a basic tenet of conservative and libertarian economics that investors in a free market can and should decide which industries succeed or fail without government subsidies distorting the price signals. If oil, gas and coal are the best energy investments for the long term, then there is no need for billions of dollars in direct and indirect government subsidies to these industries.
Cutting all direct and indirect government subsidies for fossil fuels over a five to seven year period would give other energy sources a chance to compete for private investment dollars on a level playing field. As investors realized the true costs of investing in fossil fuels (such as the cost of private insurance to cover potential nationalization of assets in foreign countries or multi-billion dollar liabilities for deepwater oil drilling), they would seek out less risky and more profitable alternatives. The mix of energy sources would diversify naturally as investors allocated their capital to the best long-term prospects. Diversifying the mix of our sources of energy would limit the effects of fossil fuel price volatility on our economy, create jobs in new industries, and make us less dependent on uncontrollable events in unstable areas of the world.
Forget for a moment the compelling evidence that greenhouse gas emissions could destroy our environment in the next few generations. Just focus on how capital allocations can impact our future competitiveness as a nation. Imagine a future where other nations obtain 50% or more of their energy from renewable sources, while the US economy faces constant shocks from ever increasing and volatile fossil fuel prices. Imagine a future where most of the sustainable energy jobs are outside the United States. It makes no sense to continue allocating capital to fossil fuels in the form of government subsidies when those fuels put us at a competitive disadvantage in the world economy over the long term.
Cutting all direct and indirect government subsidies for fossil fuels would also reduce the pressure to cut investments in education. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that we need 10,000 qualified math and science teachers every year to restore our leadership in these subjects over the long term. But the combination of relatively low compensation and the need to repay large student loan balances deters many from a teaching career. We should be investing more, not less, in education and student financial aid to ensure that we have the teachers we need to remain the most innovative and competitive economy in the long term.
What would Warren Buffett have to say about all this? His actions speak louder than any words could. He has invested in a mix of energy technologies including traditional fossil fuels, an electric vehicle and battery manufacturer in China and the American electric utility with the highest percentage of wind generated power. He is betting that a diverse mix of energy sources will produce the greatest returns on his investments. Our politicians would be wise to follow his lead.
Woodbridge, New Jersey