I've long been a fan of science fiction, going back to TV shows like the original Star Trek and UFO. Around the age of twelve, I started reading a lot of Robert Heinlein and in high school, while writing a paper on Heinlein, I discovered the meaning of "social science fiction." While many readers of SF think it's all about technology or simply setting something in the future, authors of social science fiction know that it's also about the way society might be in the future or on another planet. And economics are part of society. And, folks, I fear we are officially into "social science fiction" in the US.
More than one author has imagined a world where all manufacturing is done by machines and humans simply "use." I believe the US is far closer to this future than we imagine, but it's not the machines who do all of the manufacturing, it's China, Mexico, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and even Canada. Looking around my home and office, I imagine few things I own are made in the US. And this is the problem. We don't make things anymore. Why are the US automakers collapsing? Well, partially it’s because US cars are perceived as being of lower quality than those made in Japan or Germany or Sweden, and partially it’s because of the crippling costs of running factories and dealing with unions and thousands and thousands of retired union workers in the US.
Don’t get me wrong. I think unions have and will continue to play an important part in the world of American business. But talk about fiddling while Rome is burning. I have seen many mentions that the UAW has walked out of negotiations with the automakers on plans that would allow the automakers to stay in business. Talk about short-sighted! How will all of those autoworkers benefit if the companies that employ them go out of business?
We have, over the years, seen airline personnel take pay cuts to help keep the airlines in business. Are airline employees simply bigger pushovers or are they smarter? Perhaps they recognize that some money is better than no money? Perhaps they recognize that it is better to lose the battle than lose the war?
In one novel that I could unfortunately never sell, the author wrote of a future in which classes were broken down to “achievers” and “welfies.” This is likely self-explanatory. And as I watch the middle class in America get smaller and smaller—lest it be unclear, because they are losing their jobs and thus leaving the middle class for the “lower” class—I see us moving a bit closer to this future.
Could the economic collapse have come at a worse time? Just as the Babyboomers are coming into their retirement years, their retirement plans are being decimated. If you were worried about collecting Social Security before, how about now, when many of this generation that might have planned on delaying taking benefits will now have to take them as early as possible?
Looking back at the Great Depression, which is the depression most often now being used in comparison to ours, one can’t help but realize that what saved the US was WWII. Literally, the destruction of much of the world and millions of lives is what it took. Just as some science fiction novels describe a future in which “planned obsolescence” is required to ensure a never ending manufacturing process that sustains the economy, the US was saved from the Depression by there being so much destruction and loss of life that it had to ramp up manufacturing and the results benefited the economy. Exporting goods and machinery to a devastated Europe and Asia is what made the US economy grow throughout the forties, fifties, and sixties.
Much has been made of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, in which billions of investor dollars were lost without any actual investments being involved. Is the rest of our economy really that far off? Look at credit in this country and how credit has become the linchpin that, once pulled, has caused banks to collapse and threatens to bring down car companies whose names were once nearly synonymous with “America.” Is it not just another giant Ponzi scheme? The people borrow from the credit card companies, who borrow from the banks, who borrow from the government, which used to borrow from the people (remember savings bonds?) but now borrows from other countries (e.g., China) that still manufacture stuff that the people buy with the money they’ve borrowed from the credit card companies. Is anyone really surprised this situation was unsustainable?!
Now I look at the billions and billions the US is planning on spending on the “stimulus” package and my head wants to explode. “Infrastructure” is a huge part of this package. Does anyone believe that building roads and bridges, often out of imported steel, is what this country needs? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fixing old bridges. But where is the “smart” infrastructure? One thing that drove the dynamic growth of this country way back when was the train and the laying of track from one end of the country to another. Two things that are killing this country in more ways than you can count are the automobile and the highway system. Pollution from cars, traffic congestion, and lost hours of productivity from being stuck in that congestion are costing this country billions every year. So why isn’t public transportation the very foundation of the stimulus bill? Imagine building a network of heavy and light rail throughout the nation, connecting to subways, monorails, trolleys, and buses throughout America’s cities and towns. Imagine that this network is built using American-made steel and that the equipment is all made in America by American auto builders who retool to focus not on the individual automobile but on the trains and trolleys that will carry Americans to work and play. Our goal should not be to “save” the American auto companies. It should be to transform them into highly successful manufactures of public transportation platforms.
I don’t know if it is still in the plan, but at one point I saw that $75 million was to be spent upgrading the Department of Agriculture’s computers. Since few if any computers are actually “Made in the USA,” I wonder which country’s economy will receive this “stimulus.” Clearly not ours.
Foreign countries have already begun complaining that the stimulus plan should not have “Made in America” provisions, but this is ridiculous. It’s US taxpayers’ money being spent and of course it should be spent in America. In fact, the US government should be required to only buy “Made in America,” I feel. Imagine if every computer bought by the US Government had to be made in America. Then companies like Dell and Gateway and HP would have the incentive to have manufacturing plants in the US. Imagine if every city and small town in America created the same requirement. This is not protectionist; it’s practical, reasonable, and fair. I believe that every tax dollar paid by Americans should be spent in America. This will not put Wal-Mart or Target out of business, because consumers will still spend billions and billions every year on products made outside of the US. But by committing to buying American-made products, government—be it federal, state, or local—will be creating manufacturing markets here that will need to be fulfilled. And creating those markets creates jobs, and that’s what we need.
The next part of the stimulus I’d like to see is a commitment to education with the goal of creating smarter, healthier Americans. We cannot afford to have an obese, unhealthy nation that cannot do math and that cannot invent things. We are not in a space race with the Soviet Union anymore. So what can we do to inspire out kids to be smarter, study harder, and lead healthier lives? Higher wages for teachers would help, federal money to upgrade science labs in schools would help, not to mention more money for libraries. Money to educate kids and their parents on healthy eating would be great, also. And physical education needs to focus more on the “physical,” I feel. Crab soccer was fun, but I was thirtysomething before I realized that yoga, properly taught, could be of enormous benefit. Why aren’t we teaching more yoga in school? Team sports were not for me, but does do any schools have PhysEd that isn’t focused on team sports? Perhaps they should. Teach kids a “work-out” ethic, as well as a work ethic and the country will benefit. Where is the money for that in the stimulus package?
My business can do something, too. Stop discounting books. End the vicious cycle where retailers feel they must be able to offer 10%-50% off of books in order to sell them. Because this only leads to higher prices on the part of publishers, who must jack up the cost of the book so that they can get more money after giving Barnes & Noble a 50-65% discount, so that B&N can then offer shoppers 30% off best-sellers. I bet the price of book could be cut at least 10%, which means that libraries could be that many more books and so can parents. More books in homes means more readers and we all know that kids who read are generally better students. Kids who are better students will, I believe, grow up to be better contributors to society. And we can certainly use as many of those as we can get.
Do I believe that what I’ve proposed here will actually be accomplished? No. In fact, my expectations of the stimulus package and our country in general could likely not be lowered any further. But I feel better. Thanks for reading.