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j. patrick coolican:

Energy Secretary Chu delivers powerful history lesson


Justin M. Bowen

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu speaks at a press conference announcing the first-ever hybrid geothermal-solar power plant during the National Clean Energy Summit on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011, at the Aria Convention Center.

Click to enlarge photo

J. Patrick Coolican

Clean Energy Summit 4.0

ENN Group chairman Yusuo Wang, speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at the Aria Convention Center. Launch slideshow »

Steven Chu is energy secretary, but maybe he should be crafting the message for Democrats instead.

Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, but at the National Clean Energy Summit at Aria on Tuesday, Chu played historian, and it was a refreshing message.

Chu said that in the midst of big, immediate challenges, America has taken the long view, making key public investments that fueled future prosperity and progress.

During the darkness of the Civil War, the Union made huge public investments that pushed America forward.

In 1862, the Land Grant College Act passed, which gave states federal land to develop universities that expanded teaching and research in agriculture and the mechanical arts. Iowa State was the first, but Ohio State, Cal-Berkeley, Cornell and MIT followed.

Need I bother saying what those institutions have given us? Just to start, as Chu noted, our corn production has increased eightfold per acre thanks to the agricultural research at those universities.

Then there was the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which gave generous public financing to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. That in turn gave us the transcontinental railroad.

And finally, during the Civil War, Congress created the National Academy of Sciences as an advisory panel to the government on scientific issues. (Contrast: Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry has a novel theory: Global warming is a conspiracy of climate scientists who are greedy for grant money.)

Chu continued his history lesson, noting that without government, many of our favorite modern consumer products and experiences simply wouldn’t exist. After the Wright brothers invented the airplane, our air travel innovation stalled, falling behind Germany, France and England, until we expanded military spending on air power and got the Post Office to use private air carriers to carry mail, which bolstered demand and thus investment.

The same was true of semiconductors, an industry that never would have gotten off the ground without a push from the defense and space sectors, i.e., government.

After the Soviets launched Sputnik, Chu quipped, “We realized their German rocket scientists were better than our German rocket scientists.” So President Dwight Eisenhower created programs, not just to catch up in the short term, but to innovate over decades. One such program was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which eventually developed the Internet.

Chu’s broader point was that despite the difficult budget environment, now is no time to pull back from investments in clean energy just as those technologies get a foothold in the market, and just as the need to wean ourselves from foreign oil becomes more obvious every day. (Traditional sources of energy have been receiving government help for decades, by the way.)

I’m not sure why it takes a physicist like Chu to make a cogent political argument that Democrats never seem to make. Instead, they cower or say nothing in the face of the Tea Party’s mythical American history in which — contrary to all evidence — government has played little or no role in making America prosperous and powerful.

Chu for president.

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