10 April 2007

The cost of our freedumbs

"supplies are tight, with no relief in sight."

"EIA reports that US refinery inputs are 115,000-barrels-a-day short of their 15-million-barrel-a-day "threshold" (i.e, their required capacity to keep things humming)."

I had an interesting conversation with one of my friends I went to California with when we were comparing American and Canadian economic output. We marvelled at how Americans get infrastructure projects completed so much faster than Canadians which morphed into a conversation on the differences in productivity between the two nations. He said accurately that things get done in America because they don't waste time and energy on 'meetings', 'reviews', 'committees' and 'regulatory bodies'. However, I said that economic productivity isn't the only barometer from what we should be considering the 'health' of a nation. The economists would have you believe that, but it isn't true. I posed the question, 'Well, the economists have us believe that being behind the Americans in productivity is a bad, unacceptable thing, but what if Canadians are simply more satisfied with what they have and not so mired in the consumerist delusion that 'more and more is always better? Maybe Canadians are less productive because they don't give as much of a shit about material things, and value family, free time, personal growth, a basic, universal amount of health coverage to all, and non-work pursuits more highly than Americans?'.

I still couldn't convince him that being less materialistic and consuming could possibly be a good thing, or at least a more reasonable approach to the issues we face today.

And yes, sure Canadians accept/put up with meetings and committees and regulation more than Americans (maybe to a fault), but I think the rules and procedures that have come out of all of these discussions are much more thoughtful and progressive and community-based and consequently distinctly Canadian than something based on a complete concern of individual pursuit at the expense of any other possible arrangement. At some point the rights of the individual have to be compromised for the common good, especially in this day and age when there are so damn many of us around (I propose this, but that's another story for another day).

Canadians appear to be a balance of the European and American models, and I believe we should start emulating the European models even more. The only way we're going to get through some of the storms ahead is through thoughful collaborative universal efforts, which I think might only be implementable through government regulation OR economic sanction (whether that be through government/corporate influence or simply through the reactions to free market changes). Some individual freedoms might have to be compromised to achieve this, I'm afraid. I'm sure that statement will anger some libertarian friends out there, but it's true. There are too many individuals with the power to make bad decisions that affect too many others.

The Canadian federal government has also tabled 'Robin Hood' taxes on vehicles in the last federal budget as proposed in California below. I think Canadians see them as progressive, but Americans would most likely see them as being treasonous. I believe it is paramount that we move to a user-pay model for everything and drop industry subsidies as soon as possible, so the true cost of the infrastructure and products we utilize on a daily basis are borne on those that use them the most. Seems simple, doesn't it?

From Clusterfuck Nation:

JHK mentions an interesting point about gasoline prices being one of the few numbers to pass through the consciousness, however briefly, of Americans lost in the dark raptures of compulsive shopping and immediate gratification.

At what point do we feel the sting of higher fuel prices and make changes to that we use less of the stuff, somehow?

Almost every year I take a road trip out west, usually trying to hit the times when gasoline will be most expensive. Why? The roads are generally safer then. The few remaining SUVs have slowed down from Nascar speeds to something closer to the posted speed limit. Generally there seem to be fewer large cars being driven carelessly on the interstates when it gets much above $3/gallon here.

Of course, if you stand by routes 128, or 3, or 9 going into Boston, you won't see much difference in car counts. A few more people may carpool here and there, but it's still a big ugly mess of traffic, with lots of people driving singly in large SUVs as Kickaha mentions above. Most of those people are against the wall in terms of making choices that would lessen their dependence on personally-purchased fossil fuels. Public transportation here is pretty useless. Possibly the easiest thing to do would be to start encouraging carpooling in some meaningful way. Thus far our government has proved to be inept at making changes such as this. Some cities will go as far as to have HOV lanes in the busier parts of traffic, but there has been no effort yet to penalize those who use fuel wastefully.

I think it's going to take more than $4/gallon to get people to start making changes. Prices like this are already being paid on the left coast and in Hawaii, but apparently all the Hummers and Escalades and Suburbans and Excursions are still on the road and being used for the most banal local errands.

California is currently debating doing something a little more proactive:

“Call it the Robin Hood approach to global warming.
by Paul Rogers, Mercury News

"California drivers who buy new Hummers, Ford Expeditions and other big vehicles that emit high levels of greenhouse gases would pay a fee of up to $2,500.

"And drivers who buy more fuel-efficient cars - like the Toyota Prius or Ford Focus - would receive rebates of up to $2,500, straight from the gas-guzzlers' pockets.

"That's the provocative proposal from a Silicon Valley legislator whose "Clean Car Discount" bill is gaining momentum, sending car dealers into a tizzy and sparking passions among motorists."

Measures like this are already in place, AFAIK, in other parts of the world, where cooler heads generally recognize that simply letting everyone do whatever the F they want (no matter how obnoxious or polluting or dangerous to everyone else it might be) is not such a good idea if you're interested in having a stable society. It's only within the narrow confines of a culture obsessed with me-firstism and “Goddamnit, I have the right to drive as big a truck as I want”-ism that we could weigh personal freedumbs such as these against the costs of traffic congestion, fuel depletion, the larger costs of suburban and exurban sprawl, the many hours lost sitting in traffic by millions of people every day, the pollution from so many personal vehicles driving so far and idling so much every day, the healthcare costs of the problems caused by this type of living arrangement, etc.

If we, as people of the United Parking Lot, want to pull out our heads for long enough to solve the problems of the energy crisis and the need to power down, then we're going to have to ask ourselves if we wish to continue with this train-wreck experiment in personal freedumbs gone awry, or if we're willing to switch to a more civilized way of coexisting. We're either all in this together or things will get nasty.

There are so many parties out there that would oppose an infringement of individual rights and freedoms, and I will defend democracy in this way as well, but I also see that the powers that be are also setting up the gameboard for the New World Order where this won't be allowable or at least will only be able to exist in a greatly reduced, modified form. I think we need to move away from such an extreme defense of individualism and consider that the essence of the bigger picture and the common good might be more imperative at this point in history, especially if we are entering a powerdown period of transition to different energy systems. Regulation is necessary to reign in the mavericks of the herd that are inflicting a lot more damage or consuming a lot more resources than is allowable for one individual to do, but then again, who sets what this limit is? Who has the right to make these judgments in a democratic society?

Maybe if we start down this path now gradually, we can avoid falling into some form of governance in the future that would be much less palatable when shit starts hitting the fan.


Anonymous said...

Message from the aforementioned Cali friend.

Your arguments are well laid out and hard to dispute - as always - but I would like to point out that endless 'consultations' that seem to be the hallmark of Canadian business do not lead to better decisions: just consensus. From my experience consensus ends up being the result of who ever bitches the loudest and/or longest. I bet that most of the historically significant decisions made in Canada were made by people who were simply hungry and wanted to go home!

Take for example a downtown office tower. If the City/government has set up the zoning and the plans put forth by the developer meet those requirements then what is to be gained by ‘public meetings’ where locals get to voice their opinions? I’m personally of the opinion that there are a lot of people out there that just want to bitch and I don’t see why we – as a society – should have to listen to them.

Increased productivity does not necessarily lead to greater materialism – the term has just been hijacked by the counter-culture - it could just as easily lead to more time to volunteer or more time to spend with family both of which are impossible to do if you’re sitting in a meeting for 4 hours discussing the differences in meaning between ‘variance’, ‘difference’ and ‘discrepancy’.

Reid Dalgleish said...

Very good points, Anon. I think you and I were very much in agreement that both approaches to productivity had good and bad aspects. I was specifically pointing out to our energy considerations in this post. On one hand you have one system that allows the users to purchase and consume as much or as little as they want, and in the other you set caps on what the upper level should be. After all the consultation on what that level should be (at great expense), the concensus may or may not be the optimal level anyways. I will certainly concede you that.

I think some things that apply to the common good have been better implemented in the Canadian/European system however, and that could only have come about through long deliberations resulting in concensus.

Canada could probably get rid of the gap in productivity if we could get rid of the Canada/Quebec issue alone! This one has been a drag on our productivity for centuries. Maybe that drag is so entrenched now that we can't see it being any other way anymore? That might be the systemic problem in all of these systems. We've been doing things in an inefficient way for so long, but we've become so accustomed to it being the norm we don't consider changing it anymore?

Just a last thought...
"Increased productivity does not necessarily lead to greater materialism".

Granted, but in my opinion, it is the other way around--greater materialism leads to increased productivity. There's more money in the system because people are spending more, but they also have to work more in order to get the money to spend.

Reid Dalgleish said...

From Laura on Clusterfuck Nation:

Regarding the "Robin Hood" rebate program cooked up by CA:

It's nice that someone would think to punish buyers of gas-guzzlers while rewarding gas-sippers with their dough.

However, where do the carless fit into this? Why, if people who drive fuel-sipping cars are rewarded, are not transit users and cylists rewarded MORE?

I'm sick to death about hearing about not only incentives for efficient cars but SUBSIDIES, underwritten by carless taxpayers as well as the rest of the country, for "alternative" fuels while our transit agencies continue to be starved of funds and are forced to compete on a very tilted and heavily subsidized playing field tilted heavily toward auto ownership- especially when the alternative fuels will only drive this country closer to mass famines.

Why are we forced to subsidize our own destruction. All auto use ought to be somewhat penalized, with greater penalties for gas-guzzlers, and use of mass transit, and most of all cycling and walking, ought to be, if not rewarded, at least not punished by forcing those of us without cars to subsidize car use in any form, whether it is "free" interstate highways, tax abated suburban shopping malls, or subsidized "alternative" fuels. All these "incentives" do is replace one addiction with another.

Here, here!