Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Need to Fight the Horse and Buggy Mentality

I would like to believe that the United States is still the leader in innovation in the world and there's evidence to suggest we still lead in innovation in several areas. But that innovative leadership won't last if Washington, and particularly today's crop of K street Republicans continue to protect a horse and buggy mentality. The problem is even deeper than that, though. What we're really talking about is the protection of privilege.

We have heirs in the tobacco, beer, forestry, railroad, oil and auto industries who haven't worked the source of their wealth in two or three generations but they want their wealth protected at taxpayers expense and at the cost of our nation's economic future (this is a broad problem but it strikes me that Bush thinks of himself as an oil man but it's not certain that he ever learned much about the oil business).

And then there's outsourcing; some of the biggest flag wavers in our country are also the same characters who turn their backs on our history and values by looking for cheap labor and destroying American jobs by sending those job overseas; these flag wavers are also weakening our country and in some cases there are serious national defense issues involved when some critical products and parts are made exclusively overseas with no backup plan if something happens to the source of those products.

The most dangerous trend is the amount of our energy that is now outsourced and that we have to import from overseas. It's not likely that America will become energy independent any time soon, but we can clearly improve our situation. And of course, dependence on oil has the longterm economic drawback of global warming. And then there's the issue that there's only so much oil and we need to start making a transition to other forms of energy and increased efficiency for using the energy we have. The more we can produce new, non-fossil fuel, sources of energy domestically, the better off we will be.

The Energy Bulletin has a useful graph illustrating that slowing global warming doesn't necessarily have to slow the economy (hat tip to The Oil Drum):
SOME ways of cutting carbon are cheaper than others. So, at different carbon prices, different sorts of methods of abatement become worthwhile. Vattenfall, a Swedish power utility, has tried to quantify which ones would be worth undertaking at what price (see chart 3).

The chart may or may not be relevant to the longterm scenario of how carbon dioxide will be taken out of our atmosphere (at some point, in the next fifty years, it's probable that all the solutions mentioned by the chart will have to be used for one reason or another), but it's worth pointing that the most expensive methods of reducing carbon emissions seem to be getting the most attention from big business and their friends in Washington. And yet, the four most effective ways of lowering carbon emissions are in the hands of average people: better light bulbs (rather than incadescent), home insulation, fuel efficient cars and better water heaters. The problem with so many corporate answers to our problems these days is that taxpayers or consumers eventually pay for them in one form or another. When the auto industry or the oil industry get together as a group and put pressure on Washington, they're not looking for the cheapest or even the most sensible solutions, but rather the most lucrative.

I remember a story from some years back about an African nation that was having a serious water quality problem and it asked several American companies for a solution. The companies came back with several bids, the lowest being $2 billion. The African nation could not afford the price tag. But the companies were thinking in terms of big projects and big profits. Someone else came along who was more interested in helping the African nation than in making huge profits and pointed out that the water quality could be vastly improved for $2 million by digging wells and putting in numerous public faucets at different locations; it wasn't an ideal solution and it wouldn't be a vast American solution with high quality water but it would be economically feasible and therefore doable. One of the reasons reconstruction in Iraq has gone so badly is that we went in with gold-plated projects that never had much chance of succeeding but that had the benefit of large profits for the companies running these projects.

In the end, innovation should not be about what has the most bells and whistles, but what actually works. We're losing the knack we had in our first 200 years of just figuring things out. To my mind, we are beginning to face things that innovation may not be able to solve, but innovation is still our best chance of getting through the next 100 years. We have a number of corrupt and powerful people who refuse to think that far ahead.

Real innovation may require changing how we think about the world and what our obligations are not just to our own children but coming generations as a whole. It wasn't all that long ago that innovators, particularly those in medicine, donated their ideas to the world without regard to the fat profits they might earn. I have nothing against profits but sometimes we end up encouraging too much of a good thing and it begins to stifle real innovation, the kind of innovation that is critical for surviving the 21st century.

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Blogger Tom Gray said...

Well said. Strike a blow against global warming! The U.S. Senate is likely to vote tomorrow (Thursday) on the Bingaman Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) amendment, which would require electric utilities to obtain 15% of their electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal by 2020. More info here.

The inside word on the Bingaman Renewable Portfolio Standard is that the vote will be very tight. If you support this concept, the time to weigh in is right now. You can reach any Senator's office through the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.

Thomas O. Gray
American Wind Energy Association

7:15 PM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

I'm reminded that President Bush recently talked up coal. That could certainly help out our dependence on foreign oil. However, I'm fairly certain that even in some relatively clean-burning application coal will play hell with efforts to reduce C02.

Regarding the malefactors of great wealth you mentioned: Our neocon Republican friends began conflating, with a vengeance, the notion, "I got mine, you get yours and to hell with everyone else," with self-reliance and industriousness about 30 years ago.

Most Americans, with resentful middle-aged white guys leading the way, fell for it. The nonwealthy many have paying all sorts of prices for that folly ever since. Much of the proceeds go to the wealthy few, of course.

Americans thus delivered themselves into the hands of political leaders who seek a neofeudal society where economic might makes right and notions such as the common good, public welfare and the people's longterm best interest have been mostly relegated to campaign rhetoric. When it comes to running the country, the neocons propound and pursue their de-facto religion of an unfettered free market and free trade.

Regarding innovation, I'm reminded of a segment Lou Dobbs did today, bemoaning the fact that in major city after major city across the U.S., far fewer than 50 percent of high school students graduate.

11:46 PM  

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