The oil crisis has become a hot topic of the presidential campaign. Obama and McCain have both tossed out a number of ideas to address high energy costs. Most of them, like taxing oil companies more, are awful. Other ideas, like a temporary reduction in gasoline taxes, are harmless efforts to win votes. Then there are the predictable efforts to nationalize refineries. This is particularly awful: why not create a national oil company to just explore and produce in those areas prohibited to private enterprise? That would do some good - while nationalizing refineries will simply insure that our refining capacity does not expand along with market demand, even though refining oil does not cause pollution at all.
Opening up the Florida coastline and ANWR is the proper economic answer, but our problem is that there is little, if any, reason to believe that a Democrat Congress with Obama or McCain as president will actually open these promising areas. Even if McCain wins, why should anyone believe that he will be able to do with a Democrat Congress what Bush was never able to do with a Republican Congress?
Another McCain proposal, however, has not only economic brilliance but also deep political appeal. McCain has offered a $300 million prize for anyone who can come up with an auto battery that far exceeds existing performance. Such a battery could make electric cars a serious alternative to the internal combustion engine. Vehicles powered by coal or nuclear power plants would almost completely solve our oil import crisis while producing pollution free, quiet cars that met the greenest environmentalist's concerns.
Everyone wants a battery like that, but it is not what McCain proposes as much as how he proposes to get what he wants that matters. A prize or bounty is a fundamentally different way for government to solve practical problems than a new bureaucracy or grants and subsidies to universities and non-profit organizations or even tax breaks for big corporations. Bounties are purely results driven tools.
Consider, for example, all the nonsense that the inventor of the new super-battery will not have to wade through in making his breakthrough: (1) He will not have to comply with the Equal Opportunity Employment Act and have proportional numbers of women and of minorities on his staff, assuming he has any staff; (2) He will not have to execute voluminous documents like the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 - yes, sadly, such an Orwellian form exists; (3) He will not have to follow IRS rules and regulations concerning the use of windmill power or allowable R&D costs; (4) He will not have to sign assurances of compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act to pay employees at the prevailing wage; (5) He will largely be able to ignore OSHA, the EPA and countless other niggling obstacles to real work. Not only will he be able to avoid all this federal paperwork and regulation, but he will also be able to ignore the equally vast, slow and dull bureaucracies of universities, mega-corporations and charity empires.
All the clutter that keeps Americans from achieving like they used to do will be swept away - which will help this man to succeed. And this man (or woman) - whoever actually develops and perfects the super-battery - will not be in semi-competition with a federal agency or two, a few dozen universities, and a handful of huge corporations. His competition will be hundreds of thousands of independent, imaginative, original minds all working for the wealth and glory which winning the prize would bring. The power of all those minds unafraid of sweat or convention dwarfs the capabilities of the mammoth, feeble-minded dinosaurs we reflexively use to find solutions to practical problems.
The super-battery would be developed very fast, the well-earned reward and fame collected, and the details of the invention made freely available to any businesses that wanted to use it. Because the super-battery would have been invented by an individual but approved by the federal government, the battery could be used without fear of civil liability - in fact, statutory language could provide such immunity.
This would all do much to solve our energy problem, but much greater would be the successful use of a new (well, really, a very old) government approach to solving practical problems. Why not offer a $100 million bounty for a commercially profitable way to generate electric power through ocean waves? Why not offer a $200 million bounty for a drug that arrests the progression of Alzheimer's or AIDS? Why not give more Scrutiny on the Bounty that McCain has proposed?