Saturday, August 16, 2008

Debts and Drills and Bad Decisions

Here's the situation: The guy who's room I've been subleting came on Friday and took away his desk and bed, the only real pieces of furniture here. So I'm sitting on the floor, writing on the laptop which sits upon the spare mattress, my sleeping arrangement until I think of something else/get a job. I am also taking pulls from a tall can of Coors original: that's right, "The Banquet Beer."

[I know who I am. No, no -- not a rube in flannel shirt who goes to the same Colorado bar and doesn't plan to "go changing." I am someone willing to drink any just about anything that resembles beer and can be gotten for 99 cents per 24-ounce can. Except Natural Light. I draw the line there. Above that line, the only differences between "American style lagers" are their advertising budgets, and I am in no fiscal position to quibble anyway.]

To the point, though: After reading a particularly self-pitying essay the other day, in which the author-who-shall-remain-nameless documents his non-existent writer's income and his near-romatic attraction to his outdated appliances, I had pledged not to go no at length about the artifacts of my own urban poverty without a good reason to do so. The reason is this -- I can't think about the future.

The immediate problem of finding post-internship employment is so consuming in its stress-energy requirement and so crucial in its outcome that I absolutely can't think seriously about the coming years of my life. This is helpful in some respects; for example, we're probably going to have to find a new apartment for November, but I've thought especially little about this coming problem because I just can't. I don't have the time or energy, and I don't have the perspective from inside my current cartoon-style whirlwind to address it.

This seems to be growing into a broad American reality. Rather than living at the margin simply being the domain of interns desperately seeking entry-level employment, more people are working too many hours, and the more affluent are still so debt-laden they often can't see past the reality of paying down their inflated credit card bills. More and more people living paycheck to paycheck means fewer and fewer people with the the time the clarity to consider anything beyond the next few weeks or months. Beyond the primary catastrophe this breeds -- the financial one -- I wonder if a nation of debtors and margin-livers can really make sound decisions.

The case in point is this: After listening in to a conference call with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and T. Boone Pickens yesterday, I wrote this blog post for DISCOVER about the increasing chance that the Democrats will cave and allow some offshore drilling in order to break the Congressional deadlock. To sum up: Offshore drilling is stupid, for reasons documented in that post, on this blog, and places elsewhere. But if allowing people to pursue their daydream that more drilling will actually affect change is the compromise that allows truly valuable measures like tax credits for alternative energy to pass Congress, then fine. It's a big investment of time and money (and national attention, of which we seem to be suffering from some sort of deficit disorder) for something that, even at its best, won't make a real dent in the oil market, and could have negative environmental consequences. But it isn't the worst thing that could happen.

The short-sightedness of the American public on this one has amazed me, however. One expects political candidates to bandy things like this about for political gain, but one must be disappointed in people for latching on to something that's so clearly a fantasy. But then I realized -- as a national on the margin, we have no where to go but over the edge. Should it come as some great surprise that people who can't afford any increase in their payments and still be able to make them should latch onto the promise that there's a pot of black gold under the rainbow of the ocean that's going to save us from high gas prices?

We should be doing everything we can to invest in new energy sources, because this is the problem that's going to define our way of life for the rest of this century, not terrorism as the President would have you believe. But we can't -- we can't think about making decisions that would help the country stay at the economic and technological forefront because we can't think more than a month into the future.

Offshore drilling is just a misguided distraction, but we should be even more concerned that our national inability to consider the future will lead us to other disastrous decisions, like tapping into the national oil reserves. Without backup, should oil-producing countries decide they don't want to sell to bully America anymore, we're up a bit of a creek. Sure, you say, but that's politically implausible, and even if it happened, we'd just load up the might of the American military's shock and awe, unload it on them Toby Keith-style, and help ourselves to their petroleum. Well, the American military's shock and awe is powered by petroleum. So besides just being a bad idea, tapping into reserves just to lower gas prices a few cents not only imperils the American economy, it also could weaken the American military, which with our economic hegemony on the decline is the one absolute superiority we hold over the rest of the world.

Chimps and orangutans might do it, too, but planning for the future is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence that sets it apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Hopefully, we're not losing it.


Michelle S said...

Love this post.

I hate to say it, but I think our ability (as Americans, not as a species) to think ahead is already long gone. All you have to do to see this is compare typical American businesses to those from other countries. Case in point: the auto industry. Honda has been creating extremely fuel-efficient vehicles for years; it's always been a focus of their engineering work, even though they really didn't do much PR-wise to emphasize it until recently. They knew years ago that energy was going to be a major issue down the road, so they always focused on fuel efficiency and alternative technologies, hence the FCX Clarity and other such innovations. They were definitely successful even before Americans realized that driving a 12-mpg SUV to the grocery store is exceedingly stupid, but look at what's happened recently to make them look even more clairvoyant: Ford lost nearly $9 billion in one quarter, while GM lost $15 billion. Meanwhile:

"Honda was the only automaker to record better U.S. sales in June compared with a year ago, while others saw sales plummet in the worst June for the industry in 17 years."

In fact, Honda posted a record profit earlier this year, and in May, its Civic and Accord models (along with Toyota's Camry and Corolla) unseated the F-150 as the highest-selling vehicle in the country--a record the F-150 had held for seventeen years.

Of course, perhaps the best evidence that Americans are short-sighted is that in July, the F-150 reclaimed its spot at the top once again.


Elissa said...

My parents are mad at Obama for keeping gas prices high, so apparently McCain's ads are working.

Beautifully written. Thank you for not romanticizing living on the margin. I don't know if the author you're referring to is Franzen, but it sure sounds like him.

Oh, and apparently GM's going to save the American auto with the Volt. Just FYI.

Chris said...

Whoops. Elissa was signed into the downstairs computer. Those would be MY parents, not yours, who buy McCain's bullshit ads. Let's keep that straight.