Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Our 20th Century Administration

     President Obama's new "economic recovery" proposal provides $50 billion for "infrastructure" development, which includes the "repair" of roads, highways, bridges, railways and runways. He has repeatedly said that we need "infrastructure for the 21st century" and the "world's best infrastructure", and he claims this proposal will help us achieve those goals. The fact is that President Obama is really proposing to create/maintain the infrastructure of the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, our president has not gotten the message, even though we're already one-tenth of the way in: this century will be nothing like the last in terms of complexity, availability of cheap energy and therefore the usefulness of our current transportation infrastructure.

     This infrastructure that he would like to create and "fix" includes the vast, sprawling networks of the fossil fuel economy. These networks have allowed us the create a suburban existence in which people live miles away from urban centers where they work, but at the same time they typically do not have the ability to sustain themselves as people in rural areas do, so they are essentially trapped in the age of Peak Oil. The insightful author James Howard Kunstler would accurately describe this suburban infrastructure as "the greatest misallocation of resources in history", yet our president would like to throw even more precious resources (taxpayer money) into this black hole.[1]. It just so happens, Mr. President, that we have depleted or will shortly deplete more than half of all crude oil in the Earth, and it will be irreversibly more scarce and expensive as a source of energy in the upcoming years. This isn't thirty or twenty years off either, it's probably a matter of two to ten years before we see significant effects on the price and supply of oil. Our flawed economic models suggest that when one commodity becomes scarce, we can simply find a substitute for that commodity at relatively equivalent expense and continue consuming indefinitely. The reality is that alternative energy sources require signficant monetary and energy expenses to develop, scale up and build the necessary infrastructure, especially when the global economy is mired in a severe recession and powerful moneyed elites and politicans are standing solidly in the way of change (they wish only to maintain the status quo for short-term financial and/or political benefits).

     It is really time that our so-called leaders wake up, grow up and stop treating the American people like little children. We need to be well into the process of transitioning to more simple transportation networks that do not entirely rely on continuous inputs of cheap oil. We should be devoting considerable resources to developing high-speed light rail transportation and mass transit, and incentivizing people to use these systems instead of their wasteful motor vehicles. The capacity for a single track of light rail is about eight times greater than that of one highway lane, and can therefore provide much greater traffic flows for much less expense.[2]. Instead, our government has decided it would be better to provide, at most, a short-term sugar high to the economy with the tired old policy of "infrastructure spending" so their poll numbers don't drop too far and they aren't thrown out on their asses. The ironic thing is that they will probably be thrown out on their asses anyway as soon as the people get a chance to be heard, since the average American refuses to be placated by the "extend and pretend" policies anymore, as it is clear they only help a small percentage of the population and do nothing for sustainable economic growth.

     I should also point out that we are actively destroying our planet's atmosphere and ecosystems by using this 20th century infrastructure, and many climate scientists believe we are approaching an irreversible tipping point in climate change much faster than previously expected. [3] Many countries and states around the world have experienced some of the hottest temperatures on record this summer, and the effects have been devastating for millions as was certainly made clear by the drought in Russia. These facts are not meant to be scare tactics designed to impart an irrational sense of doom on the readers, but merely a reflection of our global reality. We, in the developed world, are so used to the old paradigm of growth, prosperity and generally "good times" that we find the concept of dire circumstances for the global economy, society and environment ridiculous to believe. It is, in fact, a reality that billions of people live with every day while our leaders callously make empty promises of change, all the while giving us more of the same in billion-dollar increments.
     There's a good reason for why the administration refuses to call these new measures a "stimulus plan", and that reason is because the first one produced so few returns on such massive amounts of spending. Here we are, a year and a half after Obama first launched his $800 billion stimulus plan, and most economic indicators are already turning decisively south as the money runs out. The Amerian people are still facing 17% U-6 unemployment and significant hikes of fees/taxes at the local and state levels, while our federal debt has balooned to $13+ trillion with no end to our massive deficits in sight. It should be noted that Obama is also requesting $4 billion (or almost 10% of all funds devoted to infrastructure) to simply create an "infrastructure bank" to distribute the funds. [4] That bureacratic cost is a prime example of the utterly unproductive nature of additional debt-money spent into our overly-complex economy.

     Of course, this new "recovery" plan is simply a political maneuver by Obama before the elections to create the sense that his administration and democrats in Congress are actually doing something productive for the country. Obama knows full well that the plan its current form is very unlikely to pass through a bitterly divided Congress this year, but who cares as long as people play along and pretend like its close to being a reality, and then vote back in the same people who have been screwing up the economy for at least 6 years. We can only hope that this time the American people will draw a line in the sand, and let it be known that none of these politicans (neither left nor right) will continue to have jobs as long as they keep playing their cruel political games with what little money we have left.


  1. Obama would be better off spending that $50 billion on research and building a plant for thorium LFTR reactors.

  2. "We support public administration and local governments in driving profitable projects and working with our private partners." B2G