As the problems mount and our President confronts them squarely (did you see his speech yesterday, and the remarkable q&a?), it becomes increasingly clear that we face an opportunity, like a heart-attack patient who just might quit smoking, start eating right, and biking to work; thereby setting himself on a truly healthy path.

If we get our act together, embrace the need for shared sacrifice (not just tax cuts) and choose to work together (see Governor Schwarzenegger’s comments yesterday), the Great Depression II many fear could in fact prove to be something quite different. A Great Reinvention, some have called it. ‘The Great Transition,’ my law student pal John Dicks calls it.

Many of the broad strokes are not all that complicated, starting with the President’s refrain that we should ‘put Americans to work doing the work America needs done.’ Like building a modern electric grid; greening our economy to save the environment and become energy independent; wringing waste from our homes, offices, highways, and factories. With efficiency comes prosperity (just as with weight loss comes health).

We need great teachers and great cops and great nurses. Great engineers, great entrepreneurs, great construction workers.

We might be able to get by with fewer car salesmen, real estate agents, and health insurance clerks. Outstanding citizens, all; but we may be overstaffed.

Social Security? Easily solved. Health care? Harder – but isn’t a consensus growing that we need to do it? Tort reform (not draconian reform; thoughtful, Prop 200-201-202-like tort reform) – likewise.

Not to mention the gasoline tax (or, now, carbon tax) we should have begun scaling in, 10 cents a gallon per year, in 1974 – with every penny earmarked to cut the taxes on work and investment. Had we done that, gas today would cost $5 a gallon, but our cars – the envy of the world, with Detroit still #1 – would get 60 miles to the gallon, so it would be cheaper to drive a mile than it is now, with gas temporarily down at $1.90 – and our trade deficit would be so much smaller, our prosperity and security so much greater . . . but it was politically impossible (or so we were repeatedly told). Now, maybe not.

I’m not saying this will all get done. But it’s at times like this we often do make great strides, having dithered to the brink of disaster.

Andy Bernstein: ‘From Sunday’s New York Times: ‘The economic malaise that plagued Japan from the 1990s until the early 2000s brought stunted wages and depressed stock prices, turning free-spending consumers into misers and making them dead weight on Japan’s economy. Today, years after the recovery, even well-off Japanese households use old bath water to do laundry, a popular way to save on utility bills. Sales of whiskey, the favorite drink among moneyed Tokyoites in the booming ’80s, have fallen to a fifth of their peak. And the nation is losing interest in cars; sales have fallen by half since 1990.’ Why is it BAD to recycle water, spend less on liquor, and drive the same car for as long as it continues to run. Over-spending and waste are good?’

☞ I’m not sure I’m ready to wash my clothes in a tepid pool of my own filth (or Kramer’s) – but . . . exactly.

For a while at least, we will need to go light on energy and resources (so, smaller cars; smaller homes; smaller, healthier portions; more chicken, less beef; less elaborate packaging), even as in other ways we continue to live ever richer lives (cars that never get lost and park themselves; homes that respond to voice commands; a vaccine for the flu, a cure for the common cold, a computer program that sharpens your mental acuity even as you age).

One day, energy will become ‘almost free,’ as phone calls have. And maybe that will allow amazing materials breakthroughs as well. (If energy is all but free, how much can it cost to make aluminum? Or to fashion composites?)

But for now – by which I mean maybe 20 years, anyway – we’re going to have to find ways to live well with less energy and less bulky stuff.


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