Basic economics courses usually refer to a trade-off of " guns or butter," the tension between spending on defense or domestic welfare . There is no question that the United States has vastly expanded its welfare state in recent years, particularly under cover of the pandemic. Programs now completely out of date are kept on life support because nobody likes losing "goodies." America's national debt has soared, exceeding $33 trillion for the first time in September.
On the "guns" side of the ledger, the "peace dividend" that supposedly justified a pullback of U.S. defense spending in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War is long gone. International tension and threats abound today, including ambitious China, bellicose Russia, unpredictable North Korea, the tumultuous Middle East, and the fear of a nuclear Iran.
But "guns versus butter" is no longer the most important trade-off we face. Arguably, it is now guns versus virtue signaling. We are squandering trillions of dollars on virtue signaling that produces little or no benefit. These monies should be redirected into defense immediately.
What is "virtue signaling"? The quintessential example is the Green New Deal , more aptly titled the "Green New Scam." We don't question that human endeavors are causing climate change, but instead of responding with effective programs, we are throwing money onto a giant bonfire. That might warm the hearts of politicians, but few, if any, of our very expensive programs and policies will make any material difference to Earth's climate.
At the nation-to-nation level, we are spending our way into excessive dependence on our enemies while giving them a pass on climate action. The U.S. is accountable for under 15% (and shrinking) of world carbon emissions , while China's share is 27% and growing. Asia is at 53% compared with 35% for the Americas and Europe. Our dependence comes from two sources: the importation of energy, mainly oil, when we could be producing it ourselves, and the total Chinese dominance of the market for minerals necessary for our suicidal electrification plans.
More specifically, our leaders have adopted two major policy directions that will have a limited to minimal effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The first is reliance on "renewables," wind and solar power, to displace fossil fuels. This will help up to the point that their intermittency becomes unaffordable because of the cost of backup power, either through subsidizing idle fossil fuel plants or purchasing ever more batteries, thereby driving their cost through the roof due to limited mineral availability. Texas has already proposed subsidies for gas-fired electrical plants to back up their also-subsidized wind power.
In fact, in only a few settings have renewables been cost-competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity. Most projects would collapse , as many have already done, without massive subsidies for construction and operation. All the while, the glaringly obvious route to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, small-scale nuclear power plants, is being ignored despite needing only modest financial support to accelerate the design and deployment of new and scalable approaches to nuclear. Over 150 U.S. naval ships have operated on nuclear power for many decades without incident, real-world examples of the feasibility of reducing carbon emissions using this approach.
The other relevant government policy direction is so nonsensical that it defies explanation beyond virtue signaling — namely, electric vehicles. Trillions of dollars have been or will be spent for subsidies in the short term, attempting to force EVs onto largely unwilling consumers. But this strategy is utterly misguided because the push for more EVs is actually accelerating greenhouse gas emissions in the short term due to the process of mining the minerals necessary for EV batteries.
It will require driving an EV for 10-15 years for the tailpipe emissions savings to offset those from manufacturing, even assuming the batteries and the cars in which they sit last that long. And that does not take into account any battery recycling, the emissions and financial cost to create an adequate charging infrastructure that we are decades and trillions of dollars from achieving, or the leverage China will have over the automotive industry. EVs are the very definition of a " boondoggle ."
The bottom line is simple. Stop arguing about "butter." Instead, stop all the useless subsidies for renewables and EVs, redirect a small portion toward accelerating small-scale nuclear, and give the substantial remainder to "guns" to cope with an increasingly dangerous world. How can this not be utterly obvious?
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger distinguished fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.