Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Green but not Soylent Green

"It's people. Soylent Green is made out of people. They're making our food out of people."
- "Soylent Green" (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

For as long as there have been bailouts, people have known that bailouts suck. The rich play, we pay. "Privatized profit, socialized risk," it's called. Now, with more bailout requests in the pipeline and the President-Elect promising the mother of all stimuli, critics are girding for battle - and rightly so - but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The bailouts have many critics on the left - not just the nutcases on the right who still believe in "free enterprise" - but some are seeming more insightful than others. US Sen. Bernie Sanders says if a corporation is "too big to fail," it's "too big to exist." He says the government should break them up. Sanders also says, "let the rich bail out the rich" by paying a surcharge on income over $1 million to cover the costs. Jobs With Justice, ACORN and others in the grassroots left are calling for a "People's Bail-Out." All good ideas. Then there's my personal broken record: a comprehensive Social Monetary Fund to restructure the whole ball of wax.

But some of our friends, in their haste to fund "green infrastructure," sometimes forget who the effort is for.

Reede Stockton of Global Exchange, writes in an article on Common Dreams about a "new green economy" with massive public expenditure to rebuild the nation's rail network and support free public transportation using all clean energy. It's a great idea, but he says we should do it instead of rescuing the auto industry.

The US economy is on track to lose as many as a million and a half jobs by the new year. If even one of the Big Three car companies goes under, that failure and its ripple effects could add another 2-3 million jobs lost next year - not counting other job losses, already estimated as high as 300,000 a month by year's end. But they can go anywhere they want to go for free.

To be fair, the public investment in infrastructure Stockton proposes would create some jobs. But these are different jobs, very different. A comprehensive plan is needed, with public money for retraining, provisions for people who can't make the transition so easily - retirement, maybe a kind of G.I. bill for veteran of the workforce - etc.

But if the government decided to now turn its back and let an integral part of the economy collapse, millions of people fall into the dustbin of redundancy, buildings and machines tossed in the landfill or left to obstruct new development, that would be recklessly destructive. And it would gain the "new green economy" a generation of enemies that could have been allies. Why throw away the product of a hundred years of public subsidy and entrepreneurial ingenuity (albeit not "free")? The car industry could help, with the proper realistic incentives.

If we can put a man on the moon - if we can put an intelligent, well-spoken man in the White House (a black man no less, whose middle name is Hussein) - we can do this.

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