This reality show is sending some clear signals to the denizens of the real and really crowded world. The main signal is that the trade and financing rackets of recent decades are over. The extravaganza of economic hypergrowth based on cheap resources is over. The promiscuous swapping around of risk and rewards is over. There is no global institutional framework for managing the impairment left in the wake of this binge. It will be up to the individual nations now to figure out their national lives and livings.
Alas, the financial impairment is still on-going world-wide and has quite a ways to run before it's finished working its hoodoo on the so-called advanced economies. The lame duck U.S. economic posse so far has done everything possible except the two things that really matter: allow the fraudulent securities at the heart of the problem to be exposed to the light of day to determine their actual value; and allow those companies who trafficked in them to suffer the full consequences by going out-of-business. For the moment, they're content to shovel cash into the truck-bed of every enterprise in America that shows up at the Treasury loading dock. This can only have the effect of eventually destroying the value of that cash.
President-elect Obama's cagey appearance on 60-Minutes showed that he's hardly in a position to say anything of substance about this country's predicament as long as the old posse holds the levers of the economic machinery -- and retains the ability to run it into the ground before Jan. 20, 2009. So many tribulations are now underway in our Republic that it is hard to fathom what the head of the federal government might do besides act as a kind of psychological counselor-in-chief to a land full of people in distress.
The world has changed faster than anyone realizes. One big question is how long the American people will stumble around in a daze before we get back to work doing constructive things in this country -- and by that I mean activities scaled to the resource realities of the years just ahead. More specifically, I mean how we are going to grow the food we eat without massive quantities of diesel fuel and petroleum-based "inputs" and also how we are going to make any of the useful products we need in an energy scarcer time.
Perhaps Mr. Obama knows that we're not going back to anything even close to the business-as-usual that shaped our lives for the generations born after 1945. I would advise him to begin thinking about this by dividing the problem into two parts. The first part is how his government might handle the sheer emotional fallout of a people whose standard-of-living will be pulled out from under them. For a while, perhaps the first year or so, the public is apt to be trusting and generous, especially regarding a president who has had some acquaintance with being short of cash himself, and who can speak English both clearly and empathetically. Mr. Obama stands a good chance at playing that role successfully, at least for a while.
The second part, though, is the more difficult operational and administrative matter of promoting the necessary downscaling of all the essential activities of daily life. This is especially difficult given the current trend of the government suddenly taking ownership of everything, from the banking system perhaps to certain areas of heavy industry (if Detroit gets its way). The Obama government will have to resist the temptation to prevent enterprises from failing. These failing things have to get out of the way before new activities can get underway. It will also require government leaders to tell the public the hard truth that it can't do everything we would like it to do.
The fiasco of medical care is certainly a product of connivance between greedy and heartless insurance companies, profit-driven hospitals, and avaricious drug-makers. But the public itself is responsible for its own suicidal diet of double cheez burritos and Dr. Pepper. How about a national health-care system with one basic requirement: to qualify, participants must be within ten pounds of their appropriate weight. Pretty harsh, huh? Maybe. But times are harsh too, and bound to get harsher. This system would have the great advantage of being absolutely clear. Let the United Way and other charities devote their resources to educating the recklessly obese about diet and exercise so they can eventually qualify.
The transportation quandary suggests that we have to move away from the private automobile and commercial trucking, and that the airline industry is certain to contract dramatically. When are we going to start the discussion about rebuilding a U.S. public transit system that was once the envy of the world? It no longer matters how much Americans love their cars, or even how much investment we've made in car infrastructure. At some point, we just have to face the fact that democratic mass motoring is no longer on the program. Nor is a commercial economy based on incessant motoring. One other implication of this is the necessity to use our waterways for moving things and people again. Has anybody noticed, for instance, that the once-bustling New York City Harbor, possibly the biggest and best sheltered deepwater harbor in the world, has next-to-zero operating docks left along its massive perimeter? While you're at it, have a look at the waterfronts of Louisville, Cincinnati, Kansas City and a score of other inland port cities on great navigable rivers. What you'll see are condo sites, festival marketplaces, picnic grounds, and plain old empty lots -- everything but the infrastructure for commerce. We can't afford this anymore. We have to put these places back to work.
The G-20 leaders in Washington last week made a lot of noise about ramping up domestic spending. In the decades to come, this will not happen without import replacement -- which is just what it sounds like: instead of importing things you need, you make them at home, and people get paid a living wage to do it. Import replacement, by the way, is exactly how the United States rose in the 19th century to become the world's preeminent manufacturing nation. It doesn't foreclose trade with other countries, but it self-evidently changes the terms of that trade, and it would spell the end of the kind of predatory "globalism" that has led to the current state of gross imbalance and reckless destruction.
I believe this will happen whether we like it or not, because these things occur in cycles and the current cycle is obviously ending with a thundering crash of economies, modes of operation, habits and practices, and expectations. For better or worse, we have to move on to new ways of doing things.
I regard the most dangerous fantasy in America right now to be
the wish that we can keep running things just the way they are now (my
recurring synecdoche of WalMart, Walt Disney World, and the interstate
highway system) by replacing oil and gas with "alternative fuels." This
just ain't gonna happen. We're going to use every kind of alt.energy
there is and they will still require us to live very differently than
we did the past sixty years. The public just doesn't get this. I don't
know whether President-elect Obama gets this. I hope he does, and I
hope part of his new mission will be to clarify this state of affairs
for the public in clear and effective speech. It's going to tick off a
lot of them, but it's the theme music playing in the reality lounge
right now, and Mr. Obama would be advised to take up the tune.
My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.