Posts Tagged ‘public works’

Building a better beast


The United States economy is a sick puppy right now, reeling after over 1 trillion dollars evaporated.  The driving force of the economy in the past, consumer spending, has fallen drastically, as the middle class has been forced to live within its means.  Credit is almost impossible to get, and has become more expensive.  The declining value of homes has made the home equity loan a thing of the past.  Unemployment is scaring people into paying off credit cards, and building up savings.  Federal stimulus money has kept states from laying large numbers of employees, but the money is running out.

Maybe we ought to think about spending some of our money making the country more efficient.  This would reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources, as well as cutting the emissions of greenhouse gases.  Money would be freed up from energy costs, which could be used to increase spending.  Consider:  Many commercial buildings have no insulation.  That is right.  None.  The average home more than 20 years old is seriously lacking in insulation, and often leaks air copiously.

Putting people to work right now is difficult, because plans have to be drawn up and approved, bids taken, and contracts let.  But retrofitting homes and businesses could commence within weeks, if done properly.  Although President Obama talked about a program such as this a few months ago, little has been said regarding it recently.  Could it be that energy companies don’t want to see consumption reduced?  Could it be that Congress doesn’t like giving money to the average American, although they have provided plenty to the big banks and two of the car companies?

Perhaps we could couple improved efficiency with greater reliance on solar and wind power.  Low interest loans for solar panels and wind farms would probably increase the numbers in use considerably.  We are falling behind the rest of the world in the use of renewable energy, especially in the field of solar.  Building and installing solar panels would employ many people if we were to make a national push to utilize them.

Buses are a good way to save energy, and many parts of America have very few.  Building buses financed by federal loans to local transit operators would create employment in the parts of the country which have been hit so hard by the fall in auto sales.  People who ride buses save money which they can use to take their cars out for recreation, whereas people who drive to work often cannot afford Sunday drives.

There are ways to put people to work, right now, doing things that we would benefit from for years and years.  Some seem socialistic, but saving our society seems a worthy enterprise to me.  If we are going to keep borrowing money from China, at least we ought to do something worthwhile with it.

Cash for Caulkers makes many sense!


Why is it difficult for people to support a public works program which would employ large numbers of people for at least a year or more, which would reduce the nation’s carbon footprint significantly, as well as our dependence on foreign energy, and which would increase the value of homes and business establishments across the country?  The proposed energy conservation program being called ‘Cash for Caulkers’ offers the most benefits from spending federal dollars I can imagine, both in the near term and years down the road.  A large number of structures in this country were built with little regard to energy efficiency, both residential and commercial.  Increasing insulation values, installing storm windows, and closing up gaps in siding can have a tremendous impact on the amount of energy used to heat or cool a building.

So, why would people oppose such a program?  Perhaps because they stand to gain more if consumption of energy is not reduced?  Could it be that there are people who are so selfish that they begrudge any effort to improve energy efficiency?  Certainly, reducing the amount of coal and oil that we burn seems the logical way to reduce our emissions of carbon, but discussions of solutions to the climate change problems never seem to include changing our habits or improving our methods to significantly reduce the amount of fuel that we use.  But improving the energy efficiency of structures is the most painless way to reduce our consumption of energy, because it won’t result in changes to our lifestyle.  Just because your house has been insulated doesn’t mean that you have to get up earlier, spend more time commuting, or that you have to spend time out in the weather.

There are such a large number of structures which qualify for weatherization that the program could last five years and still not get them all.  But that would be five years of employment for people who have experience in the building trades, or warehousing, or billing, or any other job created by the spending of our money to make us smarter in how we do things.  The individual consumer will benefit the most from this program, because, even if the work is financed as a loan, it will be paid off in just a few years, and then the consumer can enjoy lower energy costs.

This is investment in ourselves, the acceptance of the need to spend for the future, instead of just for the moment.   This is setting money aside in the knowledge that it will create more money, for years to come, without betting on interest rates or the stock market.  This is investment which pays dividends starting immediately, and continues to generate dividends for a lifetime. This is investment that will put lots of people to work, and not for just a few weeks, or a couple of months, but long-term.  This is investment which will create jobs across the spectrum, from skilled to unskilled, from manufacturing to construction.  This is a public works project that makes sense, and is long overdue.  Let us see if we can shed the mantle of shame that goes with being the most wasteful nation on the planet.

‘Normal’ ain’t normal no more.


By borrowing money, it is possible to maintain an illusion of wealth.  The United States created such a convincing illusion that everyone was fooled, including themselves.  Unsustainable levels of consumption were reached, and became what was considered as the ‘norm’.  Other countries were sucked in too, lending us so much money over the years that they don’t dare allow us to fail.

But we have failed, failed to recognize our own greed, failed to consider the consequences of our actions, failed to remember the future.  Now, our failure is threatening other countries, because they have bought into our illusion so deeply that our ways have become their ways.  Every one talks about when this ‘downturn’ will end, but no one wants to admit that there is simply no way to go back to the way things were.  So, what are we going to do?

Some way must be found to motivate people to work for something which they will not be able to have immediately, to save instead of spend, to contribute to the good of all instead of themselves.  Because we have so much debt to pay off, and fewer and fewer things that people absolutely need, finding activity to produce new value is going to be very hard.  Fixing roads is wonderful, but only if someone is going to use them.  If we are all broke, who will use the roads?

So much individual wealth have been created that there is little room to create any more, until the wealth of the community is increased.  Only when everyone has something to spend is money worth anything.  Figuring out what will make every person, everywhere, worth more is a difficult challenge.  Building new roads won’t do it, nor will shopping malls or office towers.  Even bridges and rail roads can’t raise the worth of everyone.

One thing can, though.  Expanding the sphere of human affairs.  Pushing back the frontiers, making more room for us to play in.  We have already used up just about everything that is easy to get to on this planet, but there is lots more where that came from.  Our Solar System is full of all of the things that we can find here, except for an environment that we can live in unprotected.  Energy is free out there, courtesy of the Sun, and everything from the water ice in Saturn’s rings to the hydrocarbons in Titan’s atmosphere are there for the taking.

Not only that, but there is lots of room to play with the stuff outside of our snug little home.  We don’t have to foul our air and water to make steel and aluminum, nor do we have to uproot our forests to get copper.  We don’t even have to drench huge piles of dirt with cyanide to win a few flecks of gold.  All of that stuff is up there, off planet.  Creating ways of getting to that stuff, and of using it wherever we want to, that is how we increase the worth of every human being.

Looking over a cliff at the End Of The World.


When your world is falling apart, it is little consolation that you are undergoing a paradigm shift which is going to bring about far better things than what you have known before.    Because making the shift means ending old ways, and learning new ones.

If we were smart, we would put the big car companies to work building buses, mini-buses, and passenger vans.    They also could team up with the aircraft manufacturers and begin building high speed trains.  Right now, there are trains that are capable of traveling long distances at 300 miles per hour.  Without any high technology gambles, like magnetic levitation.  Just steel wheels on steel rails.

Riding in an airplane or an automobile is very likely to become a rare thing.  Many people will still own cars, and airlines will still fly, but the numbers are going to be small percentages of what they were, for a couple of reasons;  we are in no danger of running out of oil, but it is getting much more expensive to extract it than it has ever been.  Oil drilling equipment now has to work in thousands of feet of water, to drill miles under the seabed.  Burning hydrocarbons for energy produces a great deal of carbon mon- and di-oxide, gasses which we are hoping to reduce the emissions of.  Everything we do leaves a carbon footprint, and the tracks of the automobile are huge.

The ages of the automobile and the airliner have come to an end, which has been forecast for decades, but no one wanted to believe it could actually happen.  So, we are completely unprepared for switching over to mass transit, or building high speed rail networks.  Because the automobile industry is so deeply rooted in the American culture, the unemployment rate is quite likely to be much higher than at any other time since World War Two.

We will have to, as a nation, recognize that impossibility of continuing to use cars for transportation everywhere before we will accept paying for alternative transportation systems.  As unemployment rises, and incomes shrink, travel by air will become something unusual, except for some business people.  Teleconferencing via broadband will come into its own, and light rail, monorails, and electric buses will take over the streets.

Welfare for Science?


The United States just launched a 600 million dollar mission to look for planets similiar to Earth.  Does someone think that we can get to them?  Does finding them mean that we are not alone?  How will such esoteric knowledge benefit the public?  How small is 600 million compared to 750 billion?  Small enough that no will notice?

When we are looking at giving up our capability to put humans into space, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, merely for budget reasons, what sense does it make to spend money on science?  Especially when we need to change the perception of Space from scientific research to expanding the sphere of human activities.  Very few people I talk with are aware that there are three people living in space right now, one of whom is a woman.

High technology companies have two primary markets:  military applications and aerospace.  Astrophysicists need new data to do original work.  Both are essential to America’s military strength, because the weapons of war have become so high-tech.  Keeping the scientists eating and the high-technology companies in business is now the province of NASA, which is also responsible to our manned space program.  Which we will not have in another year, or so, because the shuttle is going to be retired, and we have nothing to replace it with, except a concept.

600 million dollars, .6 billion dollars, is less than 1 percent of what we are spending to salvage our financial system.  If we had invested that into the space program, we would be in the middle of a real real estate boom, one on the Moon.  Finding Earth-like planets will do us no good if we can’t learn how to live on this one, and the secrets to living on Earth are going to be found off-Earth, in the resources of the Solar System.  Lots of cheap energy, all the hydrocarbons you can imagine, and land just waiting to be developed.

It is time is set Science aside of a little while, and focus on Survival.  Learning to do things where they won’t affect our only home is the key to having a high-technology lifestyle and a low carbon footprint.  Learning to live and work in space is the most important challenge the race faces, in my opinon, because our extinction is almost assured if we do not.

Learning old lessons again


There is an ancient rule that any individual who becomes wealthy at the expense of the group is threatening the survival of the group, and must be isolated from the rest of the group, irregardless of the individuals eventual survival.  This law was enforced by evolution, natural selection, survival of the fittest.  It appears that civilization has caused us to forget this ancient law, because society has so much inertia that it can survive individuals who make themselves wealthy at the expense of the group.

But that condition is changing, the result of a small number of individuals who have enriched themselves enormously at the expense of the rest of us.  The brakes could have been put on the financial bubble long ago, preventing the carnage that surrounds us today.  But Greed motivated very wealthy, powerful individuals to intervene in the attempts to reign in the explosive growth.  Regulatory bodies were discouraged from investigating suspicious activity, Congress was lobbied not to enact certain laws, and a few overseas governments were manipulated into providing shelters for the wealth.

We all were encouraged to borrow, cash out equity, and to shop until we dropped.  Insanity began to take over, as the stock market kept growing beyond any reasonable limits, prices for homes doubled, and doubled again and again, and we succeeded in exporting our materialistic culture to even much older nations, under the guise of ‘globalization’.  Why should someone in Thailand make shoes for people in America if all they are going to get is material compensation.  The old ways may not have been prosperous, but the people were happy.

Greed manipulated us through the media into believing that owning things could make us happy, and accepting that our self-worth was dependent upon the things that we could by.  We became so desperate to prove our worth that we would buy cars that cost so much we had to get a 5 year contract to buy them.  Tho contract would last longer than the car would.  The same thing happened with houses, where the 30 year mortgage became the standard.  Very few people in this country actually own their home, most are paying a bank for the ability to live in the place.  By the time that you get it paid off, you are too old to take care of it, and often have to sell it for far less than what you have put into it.

All of these things made a lot of people rich, but they made a few people much, much wealthier.  I don’t know their names, and don’t want to know their names, because they are evil people.  They have been willing to run the world economy into the ground to satisfy their insatiable desire for MORE!  It would not be nearly as bad as it is if they had only played with their money, but they had to go and use ours, too.  Basically, we have all been broke for about 20 years, but we have been part of a shell game, a con, to convince us that really could spend more than we make.  It was inevitable that the powers behind this con would eventually lose track of where everything was.  When other nations with more wealth than us began to compete with us for resources, the sham collapsed, victim of gasoline prices which Americans simply could not afford.  It is one thing to put a big screen TV on your credit card, but entirely another to put a tank of gas on it.

Now, we are seeing values return to the levels they would have been at if the ‘irrational exuberance’ had been discouraged with higher interest levels, restrictions on leverage, mark to market rules, and other arcane things which are extremely boring to talk about, but which have such incredible impact on our lives when they are ignored.  Unfortunately, because so many of us have been sucked into jobs that catered to the Greed, such as selling people things that they didn’t really need, values are likely to keep on dropping.  Deflation could become a black hole, sucking the wealth out of the entire system.

Unless we begin using the material wealth that we have amassed to begin creating wealth that belongs to the community, such as a nationwide fiber optic system.  Rebuilding roads and bridges is important, but so is making those same roads and bridges far less vital, by replacing them with the means to move information, to the point that we can almost believe that we are somewhere else entirely.  Virtual reality would allow us to perform tasks half a world away, to take part in events without having to leave our homes, to shop for things without having to go to a store.

Insulating our homes, business facilities, upgrading equipment, these are the investments that we will have to make to keep energy costs low enough that we can afford them in an economy which is sustainable.  Educating our populace to the highest levels that they are capable of is another survival strategy, because the solutions to our problems are not going to come from ignorance.  Who us going to pay for all of this?  We are, the average Americans, who have been duped into spending everything that we were going make for the next few years.  Instead of paying off our credit card debts and hyper-inflated mortgages, we are going to end up working our butts off just to eat and keep a roof over our heads.

The 40 hour work week may become victim to the need to pay a whole bunch of taxes, so that this program of self-improvement is not entirely at the expense of other countries.  Probably, we are going to have to get by with what TVs, stereos, and computers that we have, because importing them would mean paying somebody else real money.  But we have so much incredible potential, so much accumulated wealth, that we could turn this thing around in a matter of a decade.  If we all agreed to work together, to sacrifice together, and to believe in each other.  There is hope, but it is mighty slim.

The dance changes tempo


So far, I am not aware of anyone acknowledging the fundamental problem behind our current economic woes;  We can no longer sustain the level of consumption that we have become used to.   Between the price of many commodities going up, and home values declining, we have to spend more than we earn to live in great luxury.  Yes, luxury.

We drive ourselves around in our own cars, so that we don’t have to be close to strangers.  Many of us stand under a shower of warm water for several minutes every day.  The lights always will come on when we flick the switch, there are no open sewers running near our schools, and the water coming out of the tap is fairly safe to drink, even though it became fashionable during the Age Of Excess to only drink bottled water.  The telephones almost always work, and most people fly on airplanes when they have to go somewhere.

By the standards of most of the world, these things are great luxuries, which even the wealthy cannot always afford, because they simply don’t exist in some places.  Yet we often consider them to be ‘rights’, which cannot be infringed upon.  We have the ‘right’ to drive our own car somewhere if we want to.  But there is nothing that says that we have the ‘right’ to gasoline whenever we want to go somewhere.  If we can pay for the fuel, fine.  But what if we can’t?

The costs of energy are rising, and not simply because of demand.  Generating plants are becoming harder and harder to get permits for, the grid that transmits the energy that is generated to where it is needed is on the verge of overload, and we need a whole bunch of new lines to move wind power to where it can be used.  Crude oil is no longer found by drilling a few thousand feet in sandy soil.  Extracting it can mean working in thousands of feet of water, and penetrating the Earth’s crust with holes several miles deep is becoming common as we search for new supplies of oil.

For our society to become economically sustainable, consumption of energy has got to be reduced considerably, possibly 50 percent.  That sounds like a huge undertaking, but we are so inefficient in how we use energy that it would be fairly straight forward.  The majority of structures in this country are poorly, if at all, insulated.  Simply bringing every building up to the highest possible level of insulation would result in huge savings,  as would putting solar panels on every roof.

But the automobile is the biggest culprit, and there is simply no way to make it cheap to push around a whole bunch of metal and plastic so that one person can risk their life to get where they want to go by themselves.  We will always have cars, but we will no longer use them all the time.  Instead, we are going to have to get used to riding public transportation when we are commuting to work or school.  But we will still be able to go where we want, when we want, when we can afford it.

If we can make what we already own more valuable by making it more energy efficient, we have invested our money into something that will create wealth, or money, as long as it is used.  But this wealth will be diffused through the economy, instead of being concentrated in the hands of a few, which might be why there is such resistance to changing the consumption of energy dramatically.  The oil companies will not make huge profits if we all start riding transit to work or school.

This will be a drastic change in the American lifestyle, but we are facing something worse than War.  We are dealing with the consequences of unbridled Greed getting its way for too long.  A lot of money was made, but the value of money is coming into question, because so much has been ‘made’ that just disappeared all of a sudden.  Real wealth is the kind that everyone benefits from, and which won’t just go away.  A bridge, a rapid transit system, a fiber optic network, insulation in every building, these are things that make all of us wealthier.

Time to celebrate


If you live in the northern latitudes, you are probably noticing that the days are getting a little longer now.  It is only a few minutes difference from the time of the Winter Solstice, but it is more apparent now, after a few weeks.  This is what the Yule Tide celebration is all about, the light returning, bringing hope to people who face months of cold and hunger.

We can barely imagine today what it must have been like for our ancestors, who did not have Gortex or Thinsulate, who did not have windows with glass in them, and who did not have central heating.  Winter was one of the greatest enemies that our fore bearers faced, with its cold, and lack of food.  Even today, Winter can kill, but for people huddled around a primitive fireplace, with only furs to keep warm, freezing to death was a distinct possibility.  And hunger was a constant companion, because food had to last until more could be found.

This winter, freezing to death is not a likely end for most people in the United States, but the economy is bound up in ice.  And the sad part is, everybody wants things to go back to the way that they used to be, in spite of the excesses and greed that brought about the problems that we face now.  We are so addicted to material, worldly wealth that we don’t know how to cope without it.

Credit was almost unherad of just 100 years ago.  If a company could not afford to buy new equipment, it had to make do with what it had.  If people needed to buy a home, they had to put up most of the money.  Cars were bought for cash, and the government did not spend more than it had.  We have forgotten those times, aided by people who grew fat off of lending money out.  Now, we all want those days of quick and easy credit to come back, to make our lives easier again.

Instead, we are going to have to learn to live without credit, without the benefits of borrowing money at the drop of a hat. We have borrowed so much that it is going to take us years to pay off our debt.  In the meantime, we are going to have to get by with what we have, unless we can manage to save up enough to buy what we need.

In a time when hardship becomes widespread, and just about everybody is having to do without something which they really need, we would do well to cultivate the kind of wealth which cannot be taken away from us.  Spiritual wealth is all around us, in the willingness of a friend to help us out, or the outpouring of support from a community for a family suffering homelessness.  This has nothing to do with religion, or faith, but is the simple belief in one another that enabled the human race to rise above hunting animals and gathering grubs for sustenance.

The Yule Tide was a time of spiritual renewal, when people gathered together to share what they had, so that all would survive the winter.  We must learn from our ancestors the lessons of spiritual credit, of believing in one another.

Should we keep our space program?


As debate erupts over the future of manned space exploration in America, it is critical, I believe, to keep one fact in mind:  Both space shuttle disasters where entireley preventable, and both resulted from management decisions, not inherenent flaws in the vehicle design.  Yes, the vehicle is risky, but anything which travels  between 0 and 17,500 miles per hour is going to be dangerous.  Just getting in the family car is even more dangerous.

The shuttle Challanger was lost after NASA threw its own safety book out the window, for some reason, and went ahead with a launch under conditions which almost guaranteed that the vehicle would be lost, along with its crew.  The temperature overnight had fallen to about 28 degrees F., and had stayed below freezing for several hours.  The booster which was in the shade, the one one the right side, was still very cold at the time of the launch.  The huge ‘O’ rings which are used to seal the gaps between the rocket segments were too cold to be pliable, and the rings leaked.

The only reason that the spacecraft was lost was because it was flown when it was too darn cold.  And this temperature limitation was known and recognized, but was ignored for some reason.  If you put regular tires on a racing car, would you be surprised if they didn’t last very long?  Flying the shuttle that morning was tantamount to loosening the lug nuts on all four wheels of a car before taking it on the interstate.  Of course something is going to go wrong.

The loss of the Columbia was even more criminal.  Repeatedly, NASA management had been warned that insulating foam from the external tank was striking the orbiter, and that damage had occurred in sensitive areas.  One orbiter came back with a hole about the size of a lunch box in the leading edge of one wing, the same kind of damage that destroyed Columbia.  However, the management of NASA at the time felt that the problem could be dealt with during the process of preparing the shuttle for launch, and that the construction of external tanks did not need to be stopped until an answer to the foam problem was found.  The shuttles were kept flying, until a piece of foam punctured the wing of Columbia.

So, both shuttles were lost as a result of management error.  If operated properly, in the correct conditions, the shuttles have performed beautifully.  The only reason that retiring them has been chosen was because it would cost money to keep them flying, and the Bush administration wasn’t the least bit interested in space exploration.  Increasing the NASA budget 25 percent, to about 22 billion a year, would allow the shuttles to keep flying while the new generation of rockets are perfected.

Without the shuttles flying, any serious setback in the development of this new rocket could spell the end of the American space effort.  If we have to wait ten years to get back into space, we will probably just give up.  We are not likely to be the world’s leading maker of automobiles again, no matter how much we spend trying.  But we still are the best at manned space flight and exploration, and developing resources off-planet is the only long-term solution to our environmental problems.

Any view of the future which does not include off-planet exploration and development is seriously flawed, in my opinion.  The investment needed is really rather small,  far less than we spend building weapons which cannot keep us safe.  And the returns from that investment have historically been very high.  We need to make investments which will pay us back for years and years, so that our economy can grow into the debt that we have created.   Space travel is our bridge to the future, and that bridge is in danger of falling down.

What do we really want?


There has been a great deal of rheteric about ‘energy independance’, focusing on more energy efficient cars as the means to achieve it.  We are being duped!  The wealthy don’t want any big changes, they want us to go on consuming energy as we have in the past.  If we truly wanted to achieve freedom from the Mid-East, we would be figuring out ways to stop driving, period.

Mass transit, bicycles, walking, these are the only ways that we are going substantially reduce the amount of oil that we consume.  These are also the only ways that we will be able to extricate ourselves from the religious cesspool that is the Middle East.  When people get on their knees to pray five times a day, every single day, and are more than willing to die for what they believe in, any attempts to alter their lifestyles can result in jihad, a religious war.

Saving the auto industry is only a way of prolonging our dependance on oil, in spite of the wonderful sounding words about increased fuel efficiency.  Cars simply are not the answer.  The longer we pretend that we can afford to drive wherever we want, whenever we want, by ourselves, the longer it will take for us to achieve the true independance of self-sufficancy.

Our government has intentionally aided the auto industry to make us dependent on oil, by subsidizing road building, encouraging companies to invest in Mid-East oil fields, and turning a blind eye to the environmental devastation that results from distilling large amounts of gasoline from crude oil.  Consumption has been the goal, not efficiency, because consumption makes certain people wealthier.

The money that we are spending in Iraq and Afghanistan would have created mass transit systems in many American cities, as well as updating existing ones.  Instead, we are cultivating a whole new generation of terrorists, religious fundamentalists, and extremists.  We cannot impose our ways upon other people, no matter how much money we spend, military might we use, or rhetoric we spew.,