I've been struggling to finish the fourth and final in the recent series of posts analyzing my hometown of Baxter's decision to charge ahead with enhancements to their transportation system in anticipation of growth. The fourth posting (see first, second and third) is supposed to detail what they can do to get out of the suburban Ponzi scheme trap. My angst on finalizing it has a lot to do with the fact that, as I write the words, I visualize the people making the decisions and just know a change is not in the offing. Even talking to my family a little bit this weekend between festivities confirmed to me that ingrained in us (either as Americans or perhaps simply as humans) is an inability to see the future as anything more than a continuation of the past.
My anguish is that I know the future will not possibly be a continuation of the past. But even of those that agree with me (and many do, actually, in the abstract, understand that we are in for some large changes), few can envision a different approach, let alone how to transition. This is my trouble with looking at my hometown. I can give a dispassionate analysis of what they need to do, but I also know what they will actually do. It is hard to separate the two.
So I've spent the long weekend reading and trying to digest more perspective on what is to come. It started with this fascinating interview with an economist named Jeremy Rifkin. He is talking mostly about Europe, but gives this fascinating overview of America and how we have transitioned from the railroad era (the first industrial revolution) into the automobile era (the second industrial revolution) and now have basically sucked all the real prosperity out of the auto era that could be had waiting for the next revolution. Here is a selection of his words:
The reason for the financial bubble is that the second industrial revolution is based on centralised electricity communication and oil - the internal combustion engine and suburban construction.
In our country the juvenile infrastructure was put together for the second industrial revolution between 1900 and 1929. Then we had the Great Depression and the war. The mature infrastructure was put together in the 1950s-60s: it was called the interstate highway – the biggest public works project in US history.
Europe followed with its interstate highways in the 70s and 80s. So you were a little behind us.
That was the infrastructure shift that allowed us to get the full multiplier effect out of the auto age, the oil age with suburban construction, travel and tourism and all the things that go with that.
The productivity of that technology and infrastructure boomed in the late 80s. We overbuilt in housing, commercial, real estate. We overshot. At that point, we went into a housing recession, which became a global recession.
How did we get out of the recession? We didn’t. We did not have a third industrial revolution in place with the same multiplier effect as the auto age, the oil age and suburban construction, so we began to eat up the savings of the second industrial revolution through extended credit.
Family savings became the purchasing power to move globalisation in the early 90s.
I believe this explains, very concisely, where we are right now. And also why we seem incapable of changing. Suburban-style development "worked" for us. I'm not saying it was sustainable by any definition, but it did create widespread prosperity for a while, particularly when compared to the industrial cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We're just incapable of getting our minds around the notion that it has long run its course.
It is a little like a tribe of primitive humans looking up at the sun in the fourth or fifth year of a drought. The last time there was a drought, they sacrificed some children on the alter and it started to rain shortly after. It worked then, so they decide to just keep sacrificing people until it starts to rain again. It seems primitive today, sure, but what do you think they did to the heretic who dared to suggest that perhaps rain cycles were controlled by a complex system of weather patterns and not the golden idol?
So here we are. We made the investments. Got a fair return. But we failed to move to the next level. We failed to grow. We started looking inward instead of outword. We started to worry about our lives and not the lives of those that will be here 100 years after us. We've coasted on the grand promise that was America, a promise built with the blood and treasure of people long past.
We spent their capital. We then spent our capital. We now have spent our children's capital. Soon we will spend our children's, children's capital. And what do we have to show for it?
Pathetically little. And even less that we will collectively fight to save over the coming decades.
I was precariously walking the tiny sidewalks of my twin-hometown of Brainerd with my family, trying to cross the highway to get to my SUV and shuttle them all to our remote, isolated, buffered home. It struck me that nobody in the Brainerd city government - and very few of the residents of the city - stop to wonder why these tens of thousands of people are all fleeing their historic town as quickly as possible after this big community event. Nobody really sees the tragic irony that the millions spent on building all these oversized roads and streets makes traffic flow primarily in one direction: out. It is just accepted. Why would they stay? There is no thought given to the notion that those millions could have been spent making Brainerd a place worth being instead.
And as they drive through suburban Baxter, cursing the traffic signals and the "congestion" on roads that were once massively oversized, nobody sees the irony that the millions invested here has not created prosperity. It has not brought financial security but instead unprecedented fragility. Very few are really better off, particularly after the (first?) housing correction. And nobody sees the ticking time bomb of the massive liability to maintain these bloated infrastructure systems. A liability that will become acute in a post-government bubble era. The public officials just project growth, and that solves all of today's ills.
I sat with my father for a couple hours prior to the parade, holding a prime viewing spot for the hoard of young girls that comprise the adolescent component of our extended family posse. He doesn't follow my work real closely, but he listened to my thoughts and then advised me to not get involved. He said it would just make me crazy, that I had better things to do with my time.
I love him, but I am terrified to think that advice is being passed on over and over again across the country to people who would otherwise question whether or not the golden idol is really all powerful.