Economics prof weighs in on sustainability issues during an election year

Ellie Phillips

With the presidential election closing in, several topics are on the minds of young voters, and the least of these is sustainability.

“During recessions and low-growth years, environmental issues get pushed aside by concerns over economic growth and unemployment,” said John Constantelos, professor of political science at Grand Valley State University. “Even as a non-specialist, I can state with some confidence that sustainability is not an important factor in the election.”

In truth, sustainability in the environmental area has facets in three separate areas: government finance, societal function and, as previously stated, the environment.

Subsequently, the most focused-upon area of sustainability in this election is the financial sector.

“When we look at financial sustainability, there’re really two edges to that: Having a business sector that’s vibrant and continuing forward and having a government sector that can fund what it’s promised to the future,” said Paul Isely, professor and chair of economics at GVSU. “We’re seeing that on the government side both (of the candidates) want … a budget that is sustainable.”

Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) has a plan to create a sustainable budget which involves making the government budget smaller, giving more latitude if something goes wrong in the economy, Isely said. President Barack Obama’s plan would tend to stabilize the budget, making it less likely for something to go wrong in the first place.

“As far as the business side, I think they both have good plans for business,” Isely said. “The difference is the Obama plan tends to be a little more (focused) on the short run – the next five years – whereas the Romney plans tend to be looking beyond that. There’s good arguments for both, so it’s a matter of what your perspective is as an individual.”

In terms of the environment, Obama may have the more proactive plan of building up renewable and alternative energy sources and offering tax-cuts, low interest loans and subsidies for those who use sustainable energy. Romney’s plan to minimize the budget would mean taking money away from federally-funded sustainability endeavors, especially as Romney wants to give more federal funding to the defense program. The governor’s plan, therefore, would support the free-market model of letting the most efficient method of energy production become the most profitable, and thus the most commonly used. If those methods are sustainable and/or renewable, so much the better.

“It’s a little harder to see exactly where things are going here,” Isely said. “What we see is the Obama administration wanting to extend the tax credits for alternative energy that are in place right now, and we see the Romney plans talking about ‘we should scale these things back.’”

Isely said social sustainability is likely the most difficult issue related to sustainability in the election, as the candidates have two completely different ideas about what is needed for a sustainable social infrastructure.

The Obama administration would be utilizing ‘income-redistribution’ – that is, helping people who aren’t as well-off and paying for that through people who are well-off to make society more sustainable. This is done through programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and Welfare. The Romney campaign maintains that the problem with those programs is that the plans in place are not financially stable. Romney supporters argue that if the country continues with those programs, though they sound good, they will result in financial instability. In their minds, the country needs to scale back some of those programs so that they’re still here 20 years from now.

“They both want to have something that’s there to help people who are less well off, and to allow society to … (avoid) social instability in (the) country,” Isely said.

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