“America’s infrastructure needs are dauntingly large, complex and urgent. Ultimately, if we are to regain not only economic stability but also prosperity, if we are to remain a creative and competitive nation, we will need to demonstrate the capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.” [1]

“What this election suggests to me is that the United States may have finally lost its ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises that it has periodically faced….

“The American people, mired in debt, with one in six lacking full-time employment, are not spending; and businesses, uncertain of demand for their products, are not investing no matter how low interest rates fall. With the Fed virtually powerless, the only way to stimulate private demand and investment is through public spending.” [2]

“What’s the right tool? The cure for the Great Depression was World War II — a massive fiscal and technological stimulus. Annual wartime deficits peaked at about 28 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The government went on a hiring binge, both for war production and via the military draft. The economy blasted out of depression.

“Today, however, both parties are wringing their hands over much smaller deficits, projected this year at about 9 percent of GDP. Republicans just took back the House with a campaign against big government.

“So there is no political appetite for the civilian equivalent of World War II — a public campaign to rebuild rotting bridges, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, and to invest in 21st century infrastructure such as a smart electric grid and clean energy technology that would make the economy more productive as well as creating millions of jobs.

“The Republicans do speak of ‘fiscal stimulus,’ but they mean tax cuts. However, a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concludes that tax cuts are a far less efficient use of deficits than direct public investment.” [3]

“Improving water systems — and infrastructure generally, if properly done — would go a long way toward improving the nation’s dismal economic outlook. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, every dollar invested in water and sewer improvements has the potential to increase the long-term gross domestic product by more than six dollars. Hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created if the nation were serious about repairing and upgrading water mains, crumbling pipes, water treatment plants, dams, levees and so on.

“Millions of jobs would be created if we could bring ourselves to stop fighting mindless wars and use some of those squandered billions to bring the nation’s infrastructure in the broadest sense up to 21st-century standards.

“The need is tremendous. The nation’s network of water systems was right at the bottom of the latest infrastructure grades handed out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, receiving a D-minus.” [4]

In my last post, I asked what our vision was for our future. Where we’re going as a nation obviously carries significant import for where we go as individuals: can we expect prosperity and growth, or will the decline feared by many prove to be to our destiny? That’s not a pleasant option to contemplate under any circumstances.

But now, when the energy resources we might otherwise count on to boost us back to customary levels of prosperity (and beyond) will not be available to us in the same measures in the immediate years to come (and beyond), we have even more daunting challenges. Even acknowledging them is extremely painful and discouraging. Contemplating what has to be done is paralyzing to most of us.

So what do we do?

Let’s say that during last evening’s rain storm you discovered a small hole in your roof. You have some options this morning. Ignoring the problem completely is one choice. Painting over it is another. Calling a repairman is a third choice. Safe to say that most homeowners would choose from those three options, and perhaps the majority would choose the third option right away.

Make no mistake, this is definitely not an expense you want to deal with. But what’s the thought process if you don’t fix it now? It would probably go something like this:

“Well, I’m pretty certain this is not going to get any worse. No need to check to be certain, I just believe it won’t get worse. Actually, I’d rather not find out, to be honest, so I’m just going to ignore it. Heck, I’ll stay out of the room entirely!”

Or you have this conversation with yourself: “Not a big leak right now, and I am pretty certain that this is only going to get a bit worse and no more than that. No need to check. I’ll grab some towels, put down a couple of buckets, figure it’s not going to rain or snow much, and I think we’ll be okay for a few more years.”

Or perhaps you have this conversation: “This is probably going to get a lot worse if I don’t do anything soon, but I’m pretty certain that nothing really bad will happen. I’ll just move the furniture for now. I’m also pretty certain that if I do have to spend money to fix this in a couple of years, it’s probably going to cost even less than it would to fix the little problem now. Yeah, I think that sounds about right. But I think I’ll just tell the kids to stay away from the upper floors. That should cover it.”

Anyone want to float those options by your significant other and expect agreement? But that’s pretty much what we’re proposing by declining to spend money now on our infrastructure. (And yes, finding the money is a huge problem, to say nothing of convincing those ideologically bound to even less spending to turn around and agree to more … a lot more. Spending/borrowing the hundreds of billions of dollars we need to get our infrastructure back in shape, in this economy, has a whole suitcase full of reasons why that makes no sense. I acknowledge that.) But….

“First Britain, and now the United States, are responding to the worst economic contraction in 75 years by contracting government, despite the fact that the world’s best economists are screaming that it’s exactly the wrong thing to do….

“From China to India to Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are rising economically in ways their parents could scarcely have imagined, in part because their governments are investing in infrastructure in the way the United States did in the late nineteenth century. The American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America.” [5]

There’s little reason why we cannot be the world’s most successful or prosperous nation as those attributes are commonly measured. But we will not do so by relying on business as usual, demonstrably failed policies of the past, or levels of vitriol that are almost laughably inane. These are not the paths to restore our nation to that lofty place. (Waiting for tax cuts to the wealthiest one per cent of Americans as one strategy to help all of us guarantees one thing and one thing only: one hell of a long wait.)

Is this the best we can do? Are we going to permit justifiable anxieties and fears and doubts cloud our vision as to the choices we need to make (fraught with their own set of less-than-ideal policy considerations and consequences). This is a crisis. There is no getting around it. It was a long time in the making, and it will not be “fixed” anywhere near as quickly as we would wish. Perfect solutions are nowhere to be found, and every choice has ardent supporters and detractors. Economic challenges atop and surrounded by looming energy and climate challenges most are ill-informed about at best only add to the dimension of what we will have to contend with. We need broad-based plans now, and under the worst possible conditions.

But as I have suggested often, this is also about opportunity. Our future prosperity will be measured in large part by the vision we develop right now about how economic growth will be produced and sustained in a world with a very different base of energy resources. We cannot continue to rely on unlimited amounts of inexpensive and energy-dense fossil fuels to sustain us at the same levels as in the past, let alone support our hopes for greater levels of growth and economic prosperity in the years to come. We need to accept that. Then our work and innovation can begin in earnest.

Oil production has not increased in nearly five years, and with demand on the upswing and a host of economic and geological challenges confronting prospects for producing more, we need to come to terms with the fact that we need to redefine growth and create new means and methods of production in a once-again growing economy. Less government is the exact opposite of what we need. Less ideology runs hand-in-hand with this approach.

We’re not going to suddenly discover magical amounts of fossil fuel reserves though magical technologies because the Republican Party now controls the House. Energy resources don’t concern themselves so much with political ideology. What’s left (and there are still massive amounts left) is going to be harder to find, extract, and pay for. The quality and quantity will simply not be there in the manner we’ve come to expect. That’s the reality, and those are the facts. This means we’re going to have to make do with less just when we need it all more than ever, and just when millions more have asserted at this same time their needs and demands for the same finite amounts. Party affiliations shouldn’t be expected to change any of that.

But buried as we are under the weight of this Great Recession, it is even more frightening to contemplate that we may not get back to our expected levels of growth soon, if ever. That fear and anxiety—stoked by too many for whom integrity is an entirely foreign concept (if you have to resort to disingenuous misrepresentations to further your aims, what does that say about the message, and the messenger?)—clearly played itself out in the elections held last week.

I get the sense that what this most recent election was about was not a rejection of the President’s agenda and legislative successes as much as it was a frustration and anger (buttressed by much legitimate anxiety) that things are not better already, and too many of us thought that it would be. Feeling largely powerless, the majority of voters opted to check off the box marked “Someone Else” as their way of contributing to problem-solving. “Someone has to do something to get us some results right now” was the basic message … not entirely dissimilar to 2008’s message. We’ve proven once again that we’re an impatient and forgetful nation.

“Someone else” is a familiar electoral option, but at times one of questionable logic and wisdom. The delusion about quick and inexpensive solutions (and amnesia about the severity and breadth of problems that escorted President Obama into the White House)—notions or hopes that this could all be fixed with a couple of waves of his magic wand—collided quickly with the reality of the depth of fundamental problems which ushered in the Great Recession. Choosing Someone Else is no guarantee that the nearly insurmountable economic, industrial, and employment problems are going to be alleviated any quicker, if at all. And with one party committed to spending even less on crucial needs, we’ve got our work cut out for us just to stay afloat, let alone move ahead.

We need to be educated about the truths, painful as they are. There are no golden options, no guaranteed measures to restore us back to the “normal” we took for granted. Yes, deficit spending is no panacea. Debt passed on to future generations is not anyone’s first choice under ideal or even less-than-ideal circumstances. No one wants to pay more taxes for anything! But that’s the deal we strike with this form of governance. Less means less. More doesn’t always mean better, but more is more, and we need more of the more than we need the less.

The harsh reality is that we are in a far different set of circumstances than most of us have ever faced. Coupled with the equally harsh truth that we are going to have to fashion new measures and definitions of growth and prosperity (if that’s even possible, hate to say), and will have to achieve much of it in the years to come under a different set of rules and with different energy resources (many not yet in place), we have some serious, deep-seated, and long-lasting problems to address. The time to plan and prepare so as to ensure a seamless transition to new standards of industrial and economic production has passed. It’s not too late, but it is getting very late in the game. Adapting to means of production and supporting our vital infrastructure with different sources of energy will take extraordinary vision, planning, innovation, and implementation … and that will all be years in the making.

We’ve kicked enough cans down the road as it is. This is one more we cannot afford to pass on to the future.

These challenges need to be addressed not just by others. As I have taken pains to stress in numerous posts, we all have a stake in what happens to us and to our nation, and we all bear responsibility for helping to fashion solutions. Voting is one contribution to be sure, but let’s make certain that it is an informed choice and not solely a lashing out in impatient frustration. I’ve been on the unemployment lines, too. I understand and remember the anguish and the soul-sucking stress that governs every waking moment. Tomorrow is too long a time to wait.

In these circumstances, voting cannot be our only contribution, however. Ideology won’t create a better climate, or produce more fossil fuels from ever-declining reserves. Technology and innovation and inventions will help, but there are no plans for them to all show up early in December. We’re going to have to recognize—on top of all of our other economic challenges—that we’re going to have to make do with less of the fossil fuel-based means of producing goods and services which have long sustained our ways of living. Conserving, like it or not, is going to be a standard M.O. for us.

And to think that we can achieve any semblance of prosperity again under a political agenda that suggests we’ll spend less—less on education, less on research, less on training, less on our children, less on programs to help the many disenfranchised, less on vital infrastructure, less on necessary federal programs and departments that safeguard our citizens in a variety of ways—is to compound the delusions. The truth is that the only place where these magical economy-strengthening spending cuts will come from will be on programs that aid or benefit the vast majority of the not-wealthy Americans—ones that offer us the potential for future prosperity or serve as lifelines now. Do we really want to define our nation’s character by the philosophy of “every man, woman, or child is on their own ‘cuz I got mine.”?

By all means let’s be certain that we cut back even more programs to help the distressed, and compound the neglect to our vast infrastructure needs to insure that the wealthy have enough money to buy a seventh or eighth home. That money is gonna trickle down one of these days to us, I just know it!

“If there’s any lesson that Republicans are going to take away from this election it is that vitriol and intransigence and total unwillingness to cooperate work — politically, at least, if not in terms of getting anything done that meaningfully improves the welfare of Americans.” [6]

This is a good thing? This is what we cast votes for? This is who we are?

Are the hundreds of millions of not-wealthy Americans really content with the nonsensical explanations that the few wealthy and the major corporations need more tax cuts at their expense, while asking those same hundreds of millions of not-wealthies to sacrifice even more? Now, under these dire economic conditions?!

An ill-informed electorate that too often allows others it only thinks have more knowledge and information to lead the debate and frame the issues is every bit as damaging as abuses of power or media manipulations. The reality is that Republican Party officials’ statements about creating jobs by reducing the deficit through spending reductions and tax cuts are economic nonsense and nothing more. Analysts much more intelligent than I am have demonstrated that not one of the policy plans the Republicans produced would reduce the deficit by so much as a nickel, and prominent among those misrepresentations is their proposal to reduce taxes on the wealthiest one per cent of Americans (oh the horror that that may not come to pass!) as a means of jump-starting us back to prosperity. That alone is going to add $700 billion to the deficit! Hello?

We have to be better than that, and we have to be smarter.

The Republican agenda favors business and the wealthy. It’s not any more complicated than that. That is their history over these past few decades. If you are comfortable with that ideology, if you think that that approach is going to somehow help you and your community; or enhance and support your personal values; if you think that you can obtain the same breadth and depth of government services (most of which we completely take for granted) by giving government less funding; that spending less money on the fundamental and badly in need of repair and maintenance and revitalization infrastructure (which enables us to have industrial and economic success in the first place) is the path for future economic and industrial growth; and/or that these and similar approaches will somehow help restore this nation to levels of progress and growth and prosperity and innovation that have long been the envy of the world, then keep leaning right. It’s a free country.

“I don’t get what they think they’re doing to stimulate the economy right now,” said [Bill] Gale [a senior fellow in economics studies at the Brookings Institution]. “I can understand that people are angry or upset about the economy. But I can’t understand how that anger and anxiety has turned into this set of legislative proposals [tax cuts for the wealthy, less regulation, massive spending cuts].” [7]

We have to be better than that, and we have to be smarter. We cannot afford otherwise.

Our rage and frustration and animus that things are not better by last month at the latest has blinded and is blinding us to the future we do face: one where the rules will change of necessity, and one where the energy foundation of all of our progress and prosperity in the past century and a half will not be available to us as it has been. It’s not pleasant to accept that, but accept it we must, for if we do not understand what is at stake, what kind of changes need to be made, and how much we need to act in concert—political ideologies notwithstanding—then any hopes we have for pulling ourselves out of this dire set of economic challenges are a collective waste of time. (And yes, deficit spending by our government cannot and must not continue indefinitely, I get that part. We’re talking about spending a lot of money. That’s not nearly as simple a proposition as one would like to think.)

We have too much to do and design and innovate and implement and repair and maintain and support and provide to rely solely on the market place. Borrowing costs are ridiculously low; there’s an urgent need to repair and modernize our transit systems and bridges, schools, power grids, water and sewer facilities and all the other elements of our vast infrastructure; there are millions looking for work whose income earned will in turn be spent in the marketplace, and thousands of companies and millions of their employees who will benefit from the spending accompanying this work.

“The American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that the U.S. would need to spend an additional $1.1 trillion over the next five years to restore roads, bridges, dams, levees and other infrastructure to good condition. In its latest report card, the engineering society gave the nation’s public works a ‘D’ grade.” [8]

“For years, we have deferred tough decisions, and today, our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines hinder our economic growth.”  – President Obama

Seems simple enough.

We need a national vision with courageous, honest national leadership (Democrats and Republicans) unconcerned with narrow-minded and short-term ideological nonsense. This is about so much more than partisan principles. It’s about what is best for us as a nation now, next week, next year, and for the rest of this century at the very least. No easy, simple, or inexpensive and consequence-free decisions are on the horizon.

What will we choose for our future? What answers—and opportunities—will we be able to provide for our children and grandchildren?

Sources:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-02/infrastructural-ecologies-principles-post-industrial-public-works; Infrastructural Ecologies: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works by Hillary Brown

[2] http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/78890/a-lost-generation?utm_source=ESP+Integrated+List&utm_campaign=3b5b04383f-TNR_Daily_110310&utm_medium=email; A Lost Generation: Obama deserved to lose—but the country doesn’t deserve the consequences by John B. Judis

[3] http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/11/05/cheap_money_wont_fix_this_economy/; Cheap money won’t fix this economy By Robert Kuttner

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/opinion/26herbert.html?_r=1&hp; The Corrosion of America By BOB HERBERT

[5] http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-11-03/how-the-gop-will-help-get-obama-re-elected-in-2012/; Election Night’s Big Loser by Peter Beinart

[6] http://www.salon.com/technology/how_the_world_works/2010/11/03/what_next_for_the_economy/index.html; After the GOP deluge, what next for the economy? By Andrew Leonard

[7] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/05/AR2010110507092.html?hpid=topnews; Republicans map out their agenda of less By Lori Montgomery

[8] http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_will_to_build; US shuns some big public works projects By David Porter And Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press