Last night President Obama gave a very inspiring speech to the nation. In it he raised the bar on objectives for this country and the government. I must say that, in my opinion, for what that is worth, he has picked some key problem areas to get to work on and worthy objectives to reach in solving those problems.
But this is a good news-bad news observation.
The good news is that it seems to me that the President has developed a 'big picture' perspective in choosing energy, education, and regulatory oversight reform as keys to the future (curbing health care costs is also important but secondary, I think). The bad news is that his vision is to apply solutions in these areas to get the country back to the borrow-buy-consume-get paid enough to barely service the debt and start over again economy. In other words, he is talking about tackling (some) of the right problems but for the wrong reasons!
Alternative energy production of 'exergy' (electricity in this case) is definitely a step in the right direction as is construction of the electric infrastructure (grid upgrades) and demand reduction through efficiency gains. Both of the latter will help create some jobs and ideally we could find ways to retrain and employ laid-off workers from other industries. (See my yet to be completed series on "Steps toward an energy solution 3" for some ideas along these lines.) But for my money (literally!) I would like to see much more of the government stimulus going toward much more in the realm of energy production and efforts toward greater energy efficiency.
Education, too, is a key to any future. Unfortunately it seems Mr. Obama envisions education as still geared toward preparing people for jobs in an economy that will never be again as it was in its recent glory days. Education should become more holistic and geared toward teaching people how to live practically in a world of decreasing material wealth.
The regulatory environment could certainly be improved but the vision here is to introduce tougher regulatory mechanisms (meaning the regulators will not fall asleep at the wheels) over a financial and commercial system that is basically like the one that just crashed. The objective is to prevent a future crash. But how do you do that for a system that is inherently unstable and, as we will apparently learn the hard way, and soon, unsustainable in supporting human welfare? What we need is a hierarchical (sapient) system in which we determine what economic processes we need to survive and then institute tactical, logistical, and strategic control systems. Regulation in such a system is not about controlling what gets done in industry. It is about coordinating a cooperative environment in which markets can function properly.
Back to the good news side. In my view, Mr. Obama has picked some of the right areas to tackle because he is a smart and thoughtful person who has grasped that we have systemic problems, not just disjointed ones that happened to come on us coincidentally. That is why I think he has a big picture. This means that even though he might not have the whole picture, or that his vision may be highly biased by prior beliefs about what a good system entails, there is a non-zero probability that he will learn as he goes. It is possible that he will learn from mistakes as he sees the implementations of his agenda failing to produce the desired results. If he is quick to recognize these failures, and does deeper analysis to find out why, he might just realize he has been trying to solve the wrong problem. Of course it remains problematic as to whether he can succeed in mid-course corrections.
Mr. Obama is trying to solve the problem of how to get back to business as usual (BAU) — the capitalist market system as it was before, but with new rules to prevent implosions. That is the wrong overall objective. He should be trying to solve the problem of how to adapt our lifestyles and economic processes to a world of contracting energy resources. For that he needs to attend to population, reducing discretionary and frivolous activities, turning our remaining fossil fuel energies to bootstrapping the alternative energy infrastructure and getting it self-sustaining. And doing all of this while weaning ourselves from coal (first) then all fossil fuels as the alternative sources build up steam (no pun intended). During the time we are waiting for the population numbers to decline to a level sustainable at a comfortable living standard and our alternative energy systems to kick in and is able to support the work level needed for that living standard, we will be living lives of sacrifice and, most likely, extreme simplicity. We will need to do it for the benefit of future generations, so that one day they may take up the mantle of a technologically advanced civilization, but one in balance with the Ecos.
There still seems to be a pretty hefty gap between Obama's current vision and what we need to be doing. But as I said, I remain hopeful that he is smart enough to figure that out.