John McCain’s SimCity Energy Plan

For those of you not in the cultural “know,” Sim-City is a long-standing series of computer games which asks the player to essentially play the role of a Stalinist super-planner. What to build, where to build, and how people are to relate to all those buildings in your custom-designed city is up to you, the all-knowing, all-powerful uber-planner.

It’s all good fun in the privacy of your own home (I guess), but is this the sort of game we want the next President to play? I’m going to go out on a limb and say no. John McCain, however, seems to disagree.

Consider, for instance, John McCain’s call earlier this week for the United States to build 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 and another 55 sometime after that. The first question that comes to mind is, why 45? Did the McCain brain trust engage in some high level economic computer modeling to discover that the optimum number of new nuclear power plants is not 42, 47, or some other number … but the nice, round number of 45? I’m going to guess that they did not. I’m going to surrender to my cynical alter-ego and posit that, if one were to ask the question, “Sen. McCain, how exactly did you come to the determination that the economically optimal number of new nuclear power plants is 45 new facilities over the next 22 years?” the answer you would get would likely be totally incomprehensible.

There are two ways we can go on energy policy. We can leave the decisions about what to build and when to build to market actors (disciplined as they are by hard costs and incentivized as they are by the pursuit of profit), or we can leave that task to political uber-planners who are not disciplined by either but are disciplined by campaign contributions, polling data, and periodic popularity contests. Call me a crazy ideologue, but I suspect that the economy would prove more efficient with the former rather than the latter approach.

Note: The reason we hear politicians like John McCain talk so much about the need for the federal government to promote nuclear power is because investors in the private sector take one look at the economics and run screaming for the hills. Investment banks tell utilities who want to borrow money to build these things that not one red cent will be coming their way unless and until the federal taxpayer guarrantees that the entire loan will be repaid in case of default. If nuclear power were such a good economic bet, those taxpayer guarantees would not be necessary.