Friday, December 26, 2008

Road Dependency

A recent article in the Washington Post outlines what is likely to be a battle that the political Left is likely to lose more decisively than the choice of Inauguration Day pastor - namely, whether the lion's share of the infrastructure stimulus will go toward existing transportation projects, or toward the creation of a new, "green" economy. Obama has already signaled that he will push for immediately effectual stimulus through the funding of "shovel ready" projects, meaning projects aimed at enlarging or reinforcing the current transportation system. Even without the exigencies and pressure for immediate stimulation of the economy (and the creation of large numbers of unskilled jobs), there was a strong likelihood that the lion's share of any stimulus package was going to go to "traditional" sorts of public works projects that have been at the heart of the great American build-out for the past 50+ years. There are simply too many interests, organizations and lobbying groups to ignore; demands by Congress alone would have ensured that legislation would be over-brimming with a variety of locally desired pork projects. With the added pressure for immediately effective economic stimulus, any efforts for long-term and not immediately stiumulative investment in a new, alternative "green" future are all-but likely to be put on permanent hold. Path dependency is simply too determining, especially in this case.

It is either farce or tragedy that we will invest further in an economic model premised on permanently cheap and readily available energy sources at a time when we have had our first taste of the reality and experience of peak oil. We will sink more of our increasingly limited funds (or, increasingly limited ability to borrow funds that we can no longer create) in maintaining or expanding a transportation system that, for a few months at least in the last year, was decreasingly being used as the price of energy rose so high to be a disincentive to travel. We saw - and continue to see - the housing of the far-flung suburbs losing its value as people began to re-think the wisdom of purchasing more house at distances that not only entailed lengthy and deadening commutes, but which were becoming so cost prohibitive to force people - for the first time in decades - to consider distance to be a factor in considerations of where to live. And, we are likely to sink more money into a transportation system at just the moment we witness the collapse of America's automobile industry - the industry for which the massive investment in roads was largely built to support and expand. Growing up alongside the massive public investment in roads, bridges, and the corresponding build-out of auto-based businesses, that in one way or another employs so many Americans that the taxpayer was not only on the hook in making the growth to such massiveness possible, but is now on the hook in preventing its collapse. The reason for its demise was long in the making, but the nails in its coffin were being nailed in when it was decided that it would continue on its own path dependency of massive energy wastefulness in placing all its bets on the SUV even after our first and second experiences with various energy shocks and the industry's (and government's) awareness that the era of fossil fuels was reaching its apogee.

The decision to bail out the automobile industry is essentially born of the same set of necessities that will orient the stimulus package in sustaining and expanding our current transporatation system, and more fundamentally, our current economic model. At the most obvious level, we have thrown so much of America's wealth into the creation of this system that it cannot be allowed to collapse, even though that collapse is taking place because of our confrontation with a permanently constrained energy future. More deeply, it cannot be allowed to collapse because the American way of life has become defined by the massive expenditure and waste of finite resources. We will continue to maintain this system - of roads, automobiles, suburbs, vast and wasteful supply lines, and in general our "consumer" culture - because it is who we have become. Yet with each additional dollar that we throw into this black hole of unsustainability, we spend ourselves closer to the collapse of this groaning, creaking, crumbling system that has no future. Nearly every dollar we spend privately and that is appropriated publically now goes to sustaining the unsustainable. Yet we can be certain that we will continue to spend what is remaining to be spent to do just this - holding off, if for only a few years or months longer, the demise of a way of life that was from the outset based on wishful thinking, short term thinking and deeply flawed assumptions about a future of bottomless energy and infinite growth.


ari said...

I've got one quick thing to clear up -- that's the fake dichotomy between "shovel-ready" or "ready-to-go" projects and projects that would support a "green" infrastructure. The truth is that there are three kinds of shovel-ready projects: road expansion, road maintenance, and green infrastructure. It's a mistake the MSM has been making for weeks, and it's a problem, because it completely changes the dynamic. I recommend the resources here for more information.

brierrabbit said...

One wonders whether such conditions prevailed as the Roman Empire started it's slow decline. Building more coliseums, roads, bigger forts. longer and farther borders, etc. Did anyone notice when it started, that maybe another coliseum, viaduct etc, was one too many? Did your average roman in a distant province begin to regard Rome as more of a hindrance than a help? I don't know. I know thats how I feel about Washington.

Anonymous said...

Leaving aside the now proven fact that peak oil is as phoney as Jimmy Carter's Energy Crisis was, the far better argument against Obama's Marching Morons With Shovels approach to economy is that there aren't enough morons out there who are willing, or even physically able, to do that kind of work.

Anonymous said...

How has peak oil been proven as phoney? Has petroleum suddenly become infinite in supply?