By Mitch Green
President Obama is fond of reminding us that, as Americans, we can still do “big things.” Indeed we can do big things, but will we? At a passing glance, in a moment’s earshot, the President’s sentiment seems encouraging. That is, until you appreciate the extent to which he has committed himself to applying that rhetorical device to the task of large-scale deficit reduction. To those left sane after watching the debt ceiling theatrics, or those lucky few immune to the mind numbing aspects of it all are scratching their heads wondering why on earth the President has chosen this task as his “big thing,” rest assured you are not alone. Perhaps the President has read Fight Club too many times and believes that pushing the US economy to the brink of self-destruction is a good thing. While it’s a good book, and far from Palahniuk’s best work, I’d remind the president that it wasn’t supposed to be taken literally. Whatever his reasons, I think there are better “big things” out there that we might set out to achieve. Other things that actually improve the conditions of our lives, not roll them back.
For starters, we might seize this moment as an opportunity to utilize the tremendous glut of idle resources, and build a national high speed rail system. We can do it on the same scale as we did for the highways, make them as fast as possible and offer the American public a genuine alternative to airline travel. Not to mention, modern rail infrastructure is a necessary step towards a post-fossil fuel economy. Yes, it will require hundreds of billions of dollars to build. Maybe a trillion or so. But, we’re talking about “big things” here! Besides, dollars are cheap and right now so are the resources required for its construction. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the latest weekly real traffic summary released by the Association of American Railroads. Looking more closely at their year-on-year summaries, you can see that rail traffic is flat, and appears to indicate the economy is settling into an excess capacity equilibrium. Capacity utilization is low, unemployment is high, so now is the time to put those resources to work.
To go along with this project, we might modernize our electric grid. A hydrocarbon free economy will require a 21st century grid capable of integrating wind power from West Kansas, hydropower from the Pacific Northwest, and any American household who has decided to produce more energy than they consume, while distributing it efficiently throughout the contiguous US (sorry Alaska and Hawaii). We can electrify these new high speed trains with concentrated solar power plants located in the SW, capable of generating electricity through the night by using molten salts as thermal storage, rivaling coal and natural gas as sources of baseline power. Will this new grid and these exotic power plants cost a lot of money? You betcha, but minting a few trillion dollar coins is the least challenging problem we face today. It will take an army of laborers and engineers to design and build these systems. Luckily, we’ve got legions of unemployed people skilled enough to execute this work, and we still excel in training the mind to solve problems. For now, at least.
It is true, we can still do big things. We still possess the capability, resources, and ingenuity to best nearly any obstacle. What we are running thin on, however, is patience for empty rhetoric, aimed at achieving nothing but first place in a race to the bottom.
Progressives, Mr. Obama, you are on notice. Those of interested solving problems would like you to focus your attention on the really big things.