Monday, December 8, 2008

A submission to President-Elect Obama's "Join The Discussion" page:

How is the current economic crisis affecting me? Forgive me, but here’s my long-winded answer.

It is depressing the hell out of me. The one shining light in all this darkness is Mr. Obama’s incurable enthusiasm for the thankless job he’s undertaken.

As I see it, we need the following if we’re going to survive:

1) A sustainable energy policy -- no nukes, no clean coal, no oil, no corn-based ethanol, please.

The Big Three auto companies might be going bankrupt, but I live in Detroit, and I can assure you that there are plenty of eager, talented and experienced plant workers, machinists, and engineers who can turn on a dime. Management screwed up, not these guys. They can put their shops to work building the windmills, photovoltaics, light-rail trains and trolleys, high-efficiency appliances, etc. that our coming “green” economy requires.

But first, conservation is the greatest resource this country has at its disposal in the battle against ascending energy prices and global warming. Conservation is like a huge puddle of oil sitting right in front of us, except it’s carbon free, and requires no new technology or time lag to tap it. Implementing conservation gains will require skilled American tradesmen, technicians, and engineers to manufacture and install the required components, which means living wage jobs, across the entire country.

At the same time that we squeeze every watt of efficiency out of our energy network through conservation measures, we can install photovoltaics on every viable rooftop and above every parking lot; install micro-turbine windmills on every viable property, with batteries for nighttime, and cloudy, windless days. Energy generated close to where it is used increases efficiency -- less is lost through transmission lines and transformers -- and saves on power grid capacity. Energy generated near where it’s consumed also gets cheaper over time, as most wind generators and photovoltaics will outlive their “payback” time -- the value of the energy provided will exceed purchase and maintenance costs.

Next, we can build the vast wind farms, fields of photovoltaics, geothermal and ocean wave generators required for industrial demands, and to distribute power to distant regions when short-term demand exceeds local on-site supply.

And yes, it might be easy to shoot holes in the aforementioned scenario -- coal, oil, and nuke company lobbyists have been doing so for years -- and yes, the devil is in the details, but there are numerous projects going on right now around the world that demonstrate viability and cost effectiveness. And yes, such changes will require lifestyle changes, but most of these are improvements: cleaner air, more comfortable homes and workplaces, less time spent commuting. Visit if you want to read some case studies (BTW, I’m not affiliated with RMI).

2) Revitalization of our manufacturing sector. Free trade is not free. If workers overseas are de-facto slave labor, then it is not free trade. If those folks are employed by companies that require workers to put in fourteen hours days, require them to reside in pestilent dormitories, and fire them when they are too sick or injured to work (due to exposure to hazardous chemicals and unsafe machinery), then they are not free. They are indentured servants at best. Unless we are willing to consign laborers in this country to similarly grave circumstances, then we need to demand that the countries we import products from comply with the same employment and environmental standards that our employers do. And, we must insist that overseas workers have the right to organize trade unions, just as workers in this country have the right to do. Then, American workers can compete with their peers oversees, and we can buy back the manufacturing superiority that our shortsighted captains of industry so eagerly sold out. Even if a product manufactured in the U.S. -- say a t-shirt, or an MP3 player -- cost twice what it did if it was manufactured in China, I’m willing to bet many folks would not complain if they could also secure reliable, living-wage work in the companies that produce those products in their communities.

3) Universally accessible, government regulated health care. It’s ridiculous to continue our vain attempt to let the free market provide cost-effective, quality health care. The market is amoral -- it doesn’t have emotions, and it doesn’t care if someone dies prematurely because they didn’t get the care they needed soon enough. That’s why the market requires human -- make that humane -- intervention. A country with as much wealth as ours should not have climbing infant mortality rates, people dropping dead from tuberculosis, and families bankrupted by medical costs. It’s shameful, and if someone wasn’t profiting so much from our misery, I bet we could have fixed it by now. So lets cut the profiteering, and fix it.

4) Government -- national and local -- that is not beholden to corporate lobbyists. Without this precondition, the first three priorities -- sustainable energy, manufacturing revitalization, and health care -- are impossible. Lobbyists deliberately mislead and misinform politicians who lack the scientific or financial savvy to cut through their mendacious rhetoric. Lobbyists oversell the potential of unproven technologies, and politicians believe them. They want to believe them -- they need the campaign contributions attached to the false promises. Think defense boondoggles: ballistic missile defense; or, energy: cheap electricity from nuclear power plants; or, financial: deregulation of the commodities market (oil futures), and deregulation of the banking industry -- all promised far more than they can hope to deliver. Still, politicians bought the pitch because they weren’t well informed enough to reject it on a rational basis, or honest enough to reject it on an ethical basis. Instead, they grab the contributions (bribes) that follow the soft sell, and happily regurgitate the lobbyists' folly to their constituents.

5) Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention education. We need an informed electorate in this country. We get the government we deserve, and our education largely determines what we deserve. We all need to have a working grasp of basic economics, geography, history, mathematics, reading and writing, etc. But others will say more about this, and say it better, I’m sure.

How is the current economic crisis affecting me? I’m depressed and optimistic at the same time. A conflicted combination if ever there was one. I hope I can continue paying the mortgage on my old house that I just finished renovating -- I paid cash for the materials and did the work myself over six years of weekends. I’m mostly out of work (I do some part-time stuff), and the auto industry ain’t what it was when I moved to Detroit eight years ago. The value of my home has fallen well below what I paid for it. Things don’t look so great for the future. Still, I’m a lot better off than a lot of people, and I feel a lot worse for them. And, we’ve got Mr. Obama, we’ve got hope, and we’ve still got good old American ingenuity.

I’m fired up. Let’s get ‘er done. Yes, we can.

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