Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What exactly are we stimulating here?

As President-elect Obama prepares to take office next week, a lot of attention is being focused on his proposal for a huge economic stimulus package designed to shock the economy back into gear. I admire Paul Krugman as much as the next person, but there are a couple of elements of this that concern me. First, The New York Times reported on Saturday that the new administration’s focus on economic recovery will likely cause it to delay addressing the many other challenges that Obama focused on in the campaign – especially (for this site) the restriction of carbon emissions that cause climate change.

I don’t think I need to tell the readers of this blog that global climate change is not a boutique issue that can be dealt with if and when the “real” problems have been solved. This is an emergency – just as much as the economic crisis, perhaps even more so given the neglect or worse the issue has been dealt with over the past eight years.

Obama has promised that some of the stimulus package will be used as a “down payment” on projects focused on energy independence. I haven’t seen any details on this, which makes me think that there really haven’t been too many, which leads me to my second concern: the focus in the stimulus package on “shovel ready” projects. According to news reports
a large portion would go toward infrastructure -- highways, bridges, railways -- which would make this the largest such plan since the U.S. Interstate highway system was created under President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse made it abundantly clear that there are major improvements in infrastructure needed in this country. But even more than that, we need to move away from the whole highway-and-car paradigm that has caused many of our current problems to an increase in mass transit options, the development of more locally based economies and in general giving people more ways of doing more things without cars. In addition, of course, to developing ways of dealing with our energy needs that don't involve the further burning of coal.

Given how this is being framed as an emergency solution to the economic crisis (and we all know that Congress responds to nothing like it does to an “emergency”), and given how quickly most of these old-tech approaches can be implemented, I wouldn’t be surprised if applying stimulus money to developing new technologies will be pushed even further down the list of priorities. And that would be a mistake – a lost opportunity.

Every dollar spent on fixing the highway system or other old-school tactics is a dollar not spent on the development of alternative approaches that, though harder to understand now, have much more potential for addressing our myriad needs – economic and environmental – in the long run.

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