Our fundamental economic problem—the one that underlies everything else—is that we are no longer a production economy. We are a consumption economy.
This is guaranteed to become disastrous at some point. Our immediate economic problem is a scarcity of jobs.
Pumping oil and burning oil hurt the environment. There are huge downstream costs. Damage to health and to other business that are not paid for when we pay for the oil, but are paid for by the people who are injured by it.
The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a very dramatic example. In this case, BP will pay a great deal for the damage done. But that devastation is dwarfed by the damage that oil spills have done in Nigeria. Nigeria is a third-world country. It’s weak and it’s the seventh most corrupt country in the world, mostly from oil money. They’ve collected next to nothing, the spills keep on spilling, and the oil companies, Exxon/Mobil and Shell, among them, are doing next to nothing to stop them.
The solution to all of these problems is domestic production of energy from nonoil sources.
Solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal are the top choices.
Nuclear is more problematic. France gets 70 percent of its electrical power from nuclear plants. Switzerland gets 40 percent, and Japan gets 34.5 percent.
The difference is that those are countries where the people trust their institutions—government, businesses, and unions—and, relatively speaking, they are right to do so. As much as the Swiss, for example, love money—and they do, oh they do—I have trouble seeing Swiss regulators being bought off, wholesale, with sex and cocaine in a sauce of free market ideology, to let safety regulations slide. If a French worker in a nuclear power plant wants to slow things down or even shut the plant for safety reasons, his union will back him. In America, I’d expect such a person to be fired. As happened to the supervisors who warned of danger in the BP drilling rig explosion in the Gulf. And the Japanese—in spite of this hiccup with Toyota—have a well-documented reputation for meticulous manufacturing and business practices.
It’s hard to trust American corporations. It’s hard to trust that American regulators wont be bought off. It’s hard to believe that American politicians who take money from corporations won’t put pressure on regulators to go easy on business. It’s hard to imagine that workers will risk their jobs for the public good or that they’ll have unions that will give them the strength to do so. The real problem with nuclear power is a cultural one. If we recognize it, we can solve it. If we pretend it doesn’t exist, we can’t. With that proviso, it should be on the table.
To production, we should add conservation of energy and energy efficiency. This ranges from better insulation to better transportation to rebuilding our power grids. All of these are infrastructure intensive. They’re about building things. Instead of burning money (in the form of oil), we are investing money. Instead of sending money down a pipeline to oppressive and corrupt regimes—some of them, at times, our enemies, financers and supporters of terrorists—we will, of necessity, spend it on American jobs.
President Obama has just called, in his moderate way, to at least begin to do that. He has firmly grasped the obvious. But, as reported on the June 16 “Daily Show,” George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Billy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon all called for us to “end our dependence on foreign oil.” Eight presidents in a row gave stirring speeches, swearing to solve the problem. (Apparently “The Daily Show” is the only organization capable of looking back in the files.)
So why hasn’t it been done?
It’s the astonishment of helplessness.
The inertia of rigor mortis.
The paralysis of sanity…