Passing the buck or paying the piper
We have just gone through a period in the U.S. when very little new public infrastructure was built (with the exception of wired and wireless telecommunications infrastructure). Led by a generation and a half of politicians and economic theorists — as well as our own inclinations — Americans have become used to believing that a cheaper, more convenient option is always within reach through reliance on increasingly globalized markets. Our national specialization has become consumption, holding up the export economies of countries with lower labor costs by consuming ever more cheap goods, taking on increasing levels of debt in the process.
As a nation, we have become unable to pay ourselves living wages to do the work required at home to keep standards of living in our country within reach of other advanced industrialized countries — nations that have not taken such a radical path towards deindustrialization and consuming beyond their means. Our specialization as over-consumers has started to shut our own people out of the ability to earn enough through their work to buy what they need to live and thrive; the more goods and services we feel compelled to buy, the less we can afford to pay for each good or service, barring a substantial growth in our individual or median national income.
Building a new infrastructure involves years if not decades of work and the construction and manufacture of large physical structures here domestically, all of which cost money. We will need to organize a way to pay for this infrastructure either through payments for services, like electrical rates, or through tax revenue.
Opponents of this line of thinking will put forward the notion that monies collected through taxes or regulated pricing will inevitably be wasted, as they have not been distributed through a process of free exchange between independent consumers choosing alternatives in a marketplace setting.
We would lose years of time and much money creating a perfect market economy for infrastructure services, a novelty within world history. Already we have seen experiments with deregulation in various electric systems, i.e. California, but with little positive learned about the nature of these goods and services and their most efficient means of delivery.
Instead, we need to face the music and start reckoning that we must spend more on necessary clean energy infrastructure to ensure that we have a tolerable or even pleasant way of life as oil depletes and carbon concentrations rise. Spending more, whether through electric rates or taxes, means paying one’s neighbors and friends wages that they can live with to do the work that needs to be done to keep our United States at or near the lead of the next industrial revolution.
Those who want a new clean energy infrastructure yet stubbornly insist on paying only the cheapest price are for all practical purposes or waiting for a rich charitable patron or technological windfall to “make it all better." Technological optimists, spoiled by the microelectronics and Internet revolutions, hold out for the ultimate cheap generation and storage solutions that will match our current price expectations. We can hope this will happen, but we cannot bank on hope alone. “Free” market enthusiasts look around for the next better deal or ways to push pricing down to current price expectations against what looks likely to be a permanent bull market (with ever-rising prices) for commodities — the commodities of which energy and transport infrastructure are made. The reality of the world, however, does not always conform to one’s preferred social or economic ideal.
If we look around, though, we will see that we together can be our own patrons; we as a culture can place a higher value on energy and our own livelihoods, as workers and investors in our own society. We can pay somewhat more for something that we have taken for granted but that now requires our attention and sustained effort.