Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beyond Bailout: Reinvesting in “U.S.”

Beyond Bailout: Reinvesting in “U.S.”

For Release Sunday, September 28, 2008 © 2008

Washington Post Writers Group
By Neal Peirce

With the Wall Street mortgage meltdown so massive its costs could reach toward $1 trillion, where’s the economic plan to rebuild America’s cities and infrastructure, to retool our businesses and people for a risky century?

It seems totally missing in official Washington today. Yet it ought to be a central issue of the presidential campaign, asserts Phil Angelides, chairman of the Apollo Alliance and former California state treasurer.

The four-year old Apollo Alliance of labor, business, environmental and community leaders has been campaigning hard for an ambitious nationwide, “Made in America,” “green collar” jobs initiative. Its claimed goal is nothing less than making the country truly competitive, a global leader (rather than a laggard) in the clean 21st century energy products and services — just as President Kennedy’s original Apollo Program made us first on the moon.

Would all this cost money? Yes, tens of billions of dollar a year, Angelides acknowledges. Investment has to come early and strongly, he argues — to double the federal R & D budget focused on a green economy, to equip factories, retrain workers, rebuild inefficient energy grids, develop wind and solar power at an accelerated rate, upgrade energy efficiency of buildings nationwide, and help cities build and expand transit systems for mobility in an oil-scarce, carbon-challenged era.

Is it a “new thing” for our national government to invest heavily for its citizens’ future? No way, argues Angelides. And the precedent isn’t just FDR’s New Deal combatting the Great Depression. An equally compelling example: President Lincoln’s leadership in the midst of a Civil War that was to take 620,000 American lives.

The nation was shattered physically. Yet Lincoln pressed to charter the transcontinental railway to cement a nationwide economy. He persuaded Congress to pass the Morrill Act for state land-grant colleges, training workers for our coming industrialization. And he won passage of the Homestead Act, which in time made millions of Americans equity owners in our society. “Remarkable achievements,” Angelides asserts, “for a nation on its knees.”

Today many Americans (and culture war conservatives) prefer flying their flags to admitting how deep our 21st century crises have become. Yet the facts are there. The national security is at risk because of our massive foreign oil addiction, rapidly rising energy costs, Katrina-scale storms and global warming, weakening manufacturing power and a slow, pernicious hollowing out of the middle class.

That makes the Apollo Alliance’s call for “a New Deal, Marshall Plan style commitment to clean energy and good jobs” a bit hard to dismiss as more “liberal” “tax and spend” politics. If we can afford seemingly endless hundreds of billions to bail out unwise investors, how can we not invest forward in our own people and economy?

Indeed, the bailout plan itself cries out of a more creative “Chapter Two.” There’s rather broad support for rescuing our financial institutions from their follies and a fiscal free fall that could afflict us all.

But the economy is more than financial markets. It is also about communities, scientists, engineers, working people. And it is about talent, invention, productivity, goods and services of real and high competitive value produced with less energy, less environmental cost.

Right now people are scared and nervous. The federal bailout will ease concerns for the time being. But it won’t achieve much lasting impact unless we show our creativity and invent a more powerful economic model than the present financial short-of-hand.

There’s ample evidence we’re ready for change, even if our national leaders have largely failed to articulate it. Note the powerful recent surge of private sector investment in solar, wind power and biofuels. And note our fascination with ideas like T. Boone Pickens’ program to build huge wind farms across the Great Plains.

The “New Apollo Program” is endorsed by groups ranging from the AFL-CIO and Steelworkers to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the community organizers ACORN. Other organizations are on the same page. The “America 2050″ group is urging a new national plan to meet the infrastructure, economic and carbon reduction needs of the times. The Brookings Institution urges reshaping the federal government to promote economic clusters and energy breakthroughs in our metro regions.

The Apollo leaders express distress that GOP presidential candidate John McCain is now focusing on the highly limited returns likely from offshore oil drilling and not the renewables and carbon cap and trade system he championed before. They’re far happier with Barack Obama’s endorsement of major infrastructure investment, commitment to retooling American industry, and creating 5 million new jobs through green initiatives.

But no matter which candidate wins, the overwhelming need to invest in a radically greener, energy efficient, globally competitive America won’t go away. Bailout of errant markets is just the prelude to the really hard work ahead.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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