I wondered if Barack Obama became a one-term president with his astonishingly vapid Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster. But maybe Mr. Obama has the pulse of the nation better than any of us who wanted real change and the fierce urgency of now. It was grotesquely ironic that a few days after offering the usual presidential platitudes about the need to wean ourselves off oil, he was in Columbus, Ohio, touting his stimulus by dedicating work on a road expansion. It was, he said, the 10,000th road project that the stim has funded.
Around the nation the transit systems that had been dramatically expanding ridership as gasoline prices rose are now starving from state and local fiscal crises. Amtrak, despite the vice-president's supposed love of it, remains a shadow of the passenger rail system it succeeded and a political pawn awaiting further cutbacks and the demand that it "pay for itself." This even though no major transportation network pays for itself, certainly not roads. And this despite evidence that road projects don't even have much of a positive effect on unemployment. High-speed rail? It's being studied, even though other advanced and ambitious nations already have systems and are expanding them. Cincinnati, a lovely central city that has been devastated by freeways and sprawl, can't even muster the civic sanity to fund a streetcar line. America will continue its dependency on roads and cars — something far beyond our competitors in Europe or China. Why? Because that's the way it it.
We care about the poor birds and fish being killed by the oil spill. But not enough to give up our cars. We live magical thinking: That technology will simply replace the inexpensive light sweet crude that powered the automotive age. Rather like the technology that was supposed to allow BP to drill miles down into the earth to extract the remaining crude in the Gulf of Mexico. Electric cars will be expensive and require minerals from places other than America — many of them unstable — as well as demanding electricity from power plants that will be run on...what? Fossil fuels most likely. Beyond that, the dreams become loopy. Space aliens are not going to drop by and give us magical hydrogen cars. Tar sands are not going to yield inexpensive gasoline. Few seem to understand that the fossil fuel "imputs" into most alternative fuels are greater than the new energy produced; many also have nasty environmental or other unintended consequences. Nowhere is this more true than with any alternative to the big oil hog: automobiles.
So we care about the poor wildlife, but not really. Not when it interferes with our vaunted "lifestyle," which is "non-negotiable," a point made explicitly by former Vice-President Cheney and implicitly by the current chief executive. Prepare for more oil disasters. Soon our television-addled public will tire of this and a fresh pretty blonde teen will disappear under lurid circumstances.
The economy remains a basket case. Our elected leaders had a chance to do some real game changing. Universal health care, for example. And a massive infrastructure project to retrofit suburbia for a high-cost energy future, build more transit and a fine passenger train system, reconstituting our older cities including with great schools — all creating good jobs that couldn't be outsourced and rebuilding industries here that we've lost. Instead, nothing. Oh, a windfall for the health insurance companies. A taxpayer bailout of the automakers so they could go back to doing what they've been doing. A few bucks tossed as solar and such. The American people seem fine with this. If anything, a loud and influential minority are angry with government and want severe austerity measures. They want a return to the very policies that caused our woes. Fewer Americans are reading, an activity that requires intellectual interaction, and instead are just watching television or listening to talk radio, which is passive. That's the way it is.
We await the return of suburban building, more thousands of new "homes," more paving over of farmland and wilderness, more and longer single-occupancy car trips. No wonder. The American economy has been so hollowed out that "homebuilding" was the last of our major manufacturing sectors. Phoenix was America's biggest factory town. The wisdom of this enterprise in an era of peak oil, climate change and the need for scalable localism is rarely questioned. A majority of Americans living today grew up in suburbs. Most have never experienced walkable neighborhoods, real towns or quality cities. They can't imagine another way of living. Millions can't imagine different work from construction, real estate, mortgage boiler rooms, "home" improvement big boxes. And a federal government under pressure from the deficit hawks will never make the fundamental new investments and changes in public policy to rebuild a real productive economy. So we will sit becalmed, some doing very well, many doing OK, many more falling back or suffering...looking for someone to blame. The bubble isn't coming back. But we'll wait and get angrier.
None of our opinion leaders wants to begin the cutbacks by withdrawing from our soft empire or trillion-dollar wars, our huge defense expenditures or our adventures in Muslim lands where our mere presence makes more enemies. The defense sector is now the employer of last resort, not primarily in defense industries or in D.C., which is bouncing back nicely as a metro economy, but in the armed forces. They are now the destination for so many of our young people without means (or in some cases encouragement) to go to college, and with the trades decimated by the housing collapse. Support the troops. That's the way it is.
The way it is involves expending trillions of dollars to rescue the big financial playerz that brought on the crash. They're doing fine now, as are the richest Americans. Power is ever more consolidated. Mergers are a sign of a reviving economy. Oursourcing and offshoring are here to stay — get over it, we're told by corporate titans with similar competence as BP's Tony Hayward. The majority of the rest of us don't even recall a time when the banks were heavily regulated, industry consolidation was prevented by antitrust laws and the rich were taxed at rates of 70 percent or higher. Our libraries and parks are closing, teachers, police officers and firefighters are losing their jobs. Government is the problem, not the solution. What the hell do you mean by a "we society"?
And that's the way it is. None of this had to be. We had choices. We still do. It's true that the power of the huge corporations, from banks to oil giants, is greater than any time in history. The political control of the road-builders, car-makers, oil companies, sprawl barons, defense giants, financial playerz, insurers and Big Pharma is stupendous. But an equal impediment is custom. We just can't imagine anything different from the recent past, except for more of the same plus more electronic distractions. Custom is hard to change, especially in a society of greatly diminishing literacy, a society where citizens have become "consumers." A society watching the wealth it took a century to create be sold off for a pittance, and where the children of those who still have the means live into their thirties before growing up. That's the way it is.
When Walter Cronkite signed off his newscast "and that's the way it is," he was telling the truth. But that was another America: With a real economy, good union jobs, a government that hadn't been captured by transnational corporations, people who read newspapers and books, sober bankers and brokers, a real liberal wing of our political debate, the national will to land men on the moon — when television news was still journalism. Now the words merely convey the fatalistic jive of a nation that can't comprehend that the future will be nothing like the recent past. When the roof finally falls in, one wonders if we will remain a nation at all.