Monday, April 21, 2008

Free market environmentalism

First, a brief excursus on "Uncommon Knowledge," the webcast program with the episode being linked to in this post:

When, at the end of 1999, William F. Buckley used the turn of the millennium as a convenient point at which to retire from the business of doing his weekly television program, "Firing Line," he included Peter Robinson in the group of guests for the final farewell episodes.

He implicitly handed off the conservative television baton to Robinson, who had a couple of years earlier started his own public television interview/debate program, "Uncommon Knowledge." Robinson, who is otherwise best known for having penned Ronald Reagan's famous "tear down this wall" Berlin speech, besides having the problem of not being WFB, had the problem of dealing with a radically different television scene.

Ironically, it was another PBS program led by a conservative moderator, "The McLaughlin Group," that led the way in making life difficult for the Buckley/Robinson style of television. McLaughlin (himself an obviously well-educated guy) was the first television host with a news and opinion program where viewers were treated to the spectacle of pundits talking -- and later shouting -- over each other. It was grand fun at first, but now that everyone is doing it from CNN to FOX, it has gotten rather tiresome -- but there seems to be little room in the crowded television market for a more leisurely program. For that matter, the handwriting had been on the wall for some time, when Buckley's own program was moved from an hour to a half-hour slot for its last decade on the air.

Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, revived his Hoover-based program a few years ago in a webcast format, and it is now thriving through the additional distribution medium of National Review Online. All of the archives of the program are worth browsing, but a recent interview with T. J. Rodgers called "The Free-Market Case for Green" is particularly good. Rodgers is a Silicone Valley entrepreneur who is a self-described libertarian, and who purchased a solar power company for $50 million that is now worth $5 billion.

What is refreshing about the discussion is that Rodgers adheres to the Milton Friedman school of thought -- that the business of a corporation is making wealth for its shareholders. Period. Like Friedman, he doesn't believe in corporate philanthropy or other do-good things other than as ways to increase the value of the company through public relations.

He got into the solar power business when he was building a new headquarters for his corporation, and had the option of adding solar power to the buildings. He saw that it had a decent return on investment, but that there was much room for development of the technology that would make it even more profitable. There is demand for power that doesn't pollute, and there is money to be made in meeting that demand -- without resorting to government mandates or subsidies (although he does note that the types of cap-and-trade policies promoted by both Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain can work within the free-market schema.

In the course of the discussion, Rodgers and Robinson talk about everything from the science of global warming to the politics of carbon emissions to the current state and future of various alternative fuels -- including nuclear power. It is a refreshingly cold-eyed view at the subject in a friendly video format. Have a look.

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