The individual was Ross Perot, who had built a reputation as a no nonsense problem solver that fearlessly took on bureaucracies and challenged entrenched sacred cows wherever necessary. His courage, forthrightness and common sense attitude were a breath of fresh air. Today’s race is highlighted by, of course, the majestically and spastically deviant Donald Trump, who also has some great ideas but is most likely doomed by a mouth that has better reflexes than his brain. It is sad that Trump, like Perot before him, has some revolutionary common sense ideas that we likely will never get to see enacted.
For those that don’t remember, Perot took on several juggernaut institutions in his career that became landmarks of how he dealt with difficult problems. In 1985, after being named to head up a commission on educational reform – his ability to enact change already recognized – Perot tackled a very sacred cow: high school football in Texas. If students’ grades were not high enough, they were not allowed to play. The policy generated a huge uproar, but he held his ground and cemented his reputation as one who did not shy away from tough decisions.
A few years later, he took on General Motors. GM had acquired Perot’s company, and placed him on the board because GM chairman Roger Smith liked Perot’s entrepreneurial attitude and believed GM would benefit from a healthy dose. He was right to guess that GM could benefit, but woefully misjudged the sitcom-quality mismatch. Perot settled in on the board of directors and quickly drove them completely crazy, because he had no ability to deal with bureaucratic nonsense that had developed over insular decades at GM. Perot saw rot everywhere, and said so, which was a little more entrepreneurial that Smith was thinking, particularly when the sights were set on him. So Perot was sent packing with a huge bag of money that Perot had trouble accepting.
Trump is not in the same league, but does have a refreshing directness about him, and a complete inability to put up with bureaucratic mindsets, which is very much to his credit. The unfortunate part is that he’s at least in part stone cold crazy, or appears so with some of his wilder plans that do not appear to have benefitted from or been exposed to any critical thought. However, some of his notions are elegantly simple and worth pursuing; the problem is that the good ones are at best equal in number to the…other ones.
What’s really sad is that the American public is crying out for the sort of no-nonsense, direct solutions that both these candidates offered. It is very frustrating to see viable, fresh, solutions proposed that are free of the normal bureaucratic pandering and murkiness. Of course not all the policy suggestions were brilliant, but there were at least refreshingly direct and purposeful. Trump and Perot have the ability to cut through the political fog and speak directly to voters in a way that resonates greatly.
What does this have to do with energy policy? The US needs and deserves a better comprehensive energy plan. Cheap natural gas, courtesy of the nation’s shale revolution, has saved the country’s economic bacon since the financial crisis, with little recognition of that contribution. But it won’t last forever. Eventually wind and solar will likely play a large part of the energy scene, but that day is far away (solar and wind account for about 2 percent of 2014 energy consumption). In the interim, it would be of great value to the nation to see a courageous, comprehensive energy plan aimed at transitioning the economy from ever-harder to find fossil fuels to various forms of renewable energy while recognizing the need to keep the American economic engine running at the right speed. Key to that plan is making sure that our current fossil-fuel based economies work as optimally as possible.
As a reminder of what’s possible, here are some of the statements on energy Perot made in his day. His stance on the topic was ahead of its time, a precursor to arguments made by today’s environmentalists. He sounded more like one of them in 1992 (when the tag “environmentalist” was much more rare) when he made comments like “Pollution equals waste. Preventing pollution before it happens is cheaper than cleaning it up afterwards.” or “When we think about how to use our natural resources, we have to think ahead 100 years, not just two, five, or ten years.” He demonstrated the clarity and wisdom of Warren Buffett while reflecting a certain “get it done” attitude synonymous with the energy business, and could communicate his concepts in plain language that made pretty much every citizen nod in agreement.
As a last Perot comment, consider the directness and wisdom and responsibility of this quote that sums up what a presidential view of the environment should be, one that seems so utterly lacking in today’s presidential campaigns: “The activist is not the one who says the river is dirty. The activist is the one who cleans it up.”
The energy industry, more than any other, would benefit from clear and independent-minded solutions that a Perot or Trump (a certain side of Trump, anyway) bring to the table. Oil and gas production is too important and too much under the gun to leave in the hands of career bureaucrats. What’s needed is a firm, fearless, principled hand on the rudder. Not just for energy, for everything else as well.
It is up to the parties to bring one forward. The whole world is waiting.