Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fixing a Hole

"I've got a headful of ideas
and they're driving me insane"
--Bob Dylan

In a good essay from AP in today's paper, old Ted Sorensen (from the Kennedy years) was quoted: "Even when times were good it was recognized that the roof had a lot of holes in it. But no president or Congress in the last 20, 30 years has had the courage or wisdom to fix those holes. It's tough to fix them now with the rain pouring in."
Those who had that courage and vision were all murdered in the 1860's and the 1960's. In Republican Rome, the Gracchi brothers met the same fate for the same reasons. I was once told, in a most rare moment of candor, by a fellow employee that neither he nor his like-minded allies were going to countenance improvement, change, or increased effort because "everyone has their comfort zone." People, companies, and civilizations drive over the cliff, eyes stuck to the rearview mirror.
While we busy ourselves debating ways to paper over those holes in the roof, we'll waste energy talking and taking wrong turns to avoid, rather than confront and solve, the big challenges.
1. We're the only developed country without national health care (I don't mean insurance, which can't control costs and resource allocation directly; it just writes checks). Ontario manufactures more vehicles than Michigan because labor is 15% cheaper -- companies don't have to spend their research and development funds on health insurance for the employees there. Why big and small business are so vehemently against this is unfathomable. Despite a half century of propoganda to the contrary, citizens of all those countries with national health care love it. They don't understand how we can live with the threat that an illness can bankrupt us, as our wacky system has already bankrupted and destroyed manufacturing in the U.S.
2. 1970. That's the year of peak production of domestic U.S. oil which has been declining ever since. Coupled with the oil and gas embargo by OPEC in 1973, a monumental change took place: the balance of power moved from us to other (often unstable) parts of the world. Our post-WWII economy was based on cars, highways, and the frantic build-out of suburbia. The one-legged stool supporting this was abundant, cheap domestic fuel. The "malaise" of the 70s wasn't just a psychological fatigue; we felt the symptoms but didn't diagnose the disease. The nausea from that power shift could have been " treated" by a forceful dedication to electric transportation power (cars, trains and local transit) generated by existing technology such as natural gas and nuclear while working on green and sustainable methods to supplant them partially in the future. But we didn't, because Big Oil and sunbelt real estate billionaires put dim bulb Ronnie R in power to avoid any such basic change in strategy which would have only benefitted the country, the world and all of us. It was morning in America! Huge new oil fields coming on line in the North Sea, Prudhoe Bay and Mexico (development spurred by high oil prices during the embargo) made Reaganonics and Thatcherism look like genius when they were just the unwitting beneficiaries of a temporary windfall fortune. Was this money used to free us from imported oil or filthy coal energy dependence? Once again, a great opportunity was missed because moving in a bold, positive new direction is intolerable for most people.
3. Empires (and we are one) never learn: you can't afford war, except for self-preservation.
In a forgotten book that all leaders should read, Rome Across the Euphrates, by Freya Stark (not to be found in libraries, of course. You can find 200 volumes of Danielle Steele, though), you can see how great states overextend, take on useless and unprofitable fights far from home, then after bankrupting themselves and losing their best and brightest, do it again. Rome wasted the resources in expeditions against the Parthians (Persians) in Iraq that it needed to face the real threat, the Goths and Vandals to the north. We spent more on the Vietnam War than on the New Deal; it's $1 trillion and counting on Iraq so far. What exactly have we gotten for an investment that could have paid for national health care and green energy independence?

It's like roaches in a frying pan. Lots of activity, but nothing's accomplished.

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