Sat Jun 12th, 2010 at 06:33:46 AM EST
Many people are looking for a way to pitch in and help in response to an emergency. The last time it happened the opportunity slipped away; will it this time?
Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post
One of the striking features of contemporary Washington is the unwillingness to appeal to a sense of common purpose or shared sacrifice (except in the perennially favored Beltway project to shred what's left of the safety net). Maybe that is a good thing; the largest example in the last century was probably World War II, and no one except for a handful of bloody minded wingnuts is eager to repeat it. To an extent, not asking everyone to dig deep is a sign that we are not teetering on the precipice.
That said, the public has been eager to work in the service of a larger goal a couple of times recently, but nothing has come of it. (Incidentally, both are rooted in our addiction to oil; think we will make the connection any time soon?) Maybe our mindset of privatization, deregulation and fragmentation has put the idea of a great collective enterprise out of fashion, and anything that would bring it into the picture is literally unimaginable.
In the aftermath of 9/11 there was a tremendous willingness to do whatever we needed to wean ourselves off foreign oil. Instead of launching such an initiative the president urged us to go to Disney World. Perhaps that response was foreshadowed months before when Dick Cheney said "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
While appealing to personal virtue is necessary, it is destined to have a minor impact as long as public policy remains geared towards increased consumption. One action that even some conservatives support - most vociferously Charles Krauthammer - is setting a floor on gasoline prices in order to change driving and purchasing habits. Of course, the right also favors increased domestic production, and it remains to be seen if in light of the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf Krauthammer maintains his derisive belief that liberals have an "exquisite sensitivity for the mating habits of Arctic caribou."
Which brings us to the second opportunity, this one in the process of being missed. Many watching helplessly as the oil eruption gushes on day after day want to feel as though they can do something about it. Increasing the gas tax and using a substantial portion (at least a quarter) of the revenue to fund research and development of federally owned clean power technologies would be an easy way to let people do just that. Setting a minimum price - say $4 a gallon - deserves to be part of the discussion. To the probable pants-wetting delight of deficit fetishists it would also help balance the budget, possibly (even better!) regressively, though maybe not.
Robert Reich has suggested an even more hands on idea: A modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps dedicated to cleaning up the damage. This, unlike the census, will (unfortunately) go on for years. There is an urgent need for the work to be done, and in the midst of persistently high unemployment (hey Free Market: we're waiting for you!) would also provide the kind of job creation the stagnant private sector has been unable to generate.
Perform the due diligence on the environmental impact a large influx of people (presumably a depressed tourist season would mitigate this), then announce that any able bodied adult who wishes to work on the cleanup will be employed full time for that purpose. Print up a million vouchers for bus tickets to the Gulf. Get a million respirators and shovels down there. Build lots of temporary housing. Make this the biggest civil engineering project since the construction of the interstate highway system (and try not to think that this time it will be to mitigate the damage we have done instead of for a new, universal benefit).
Provide for emergency evacuation during hurricane season. Draw up plans for the cleaning, restoration and long term growth of wetlands. Do not tell us experts are working on a magic bullet solution, even if some of their unorthodox proposals look promising. Or rather, do not tell us that is all we are doing about it. Right now we are sitting on our hands, waiting for the next absurdly optimistic announcement from the government or BP. The public is desperate to help.
I am not a psychologist but I suspect there is a certain amount of displaced self-loathing in all the anxiety and anger. Whoever the villain of the moment is, this happened because we let it. It's our fault that this is happening, and I suspect those of us who believe in collective responsibility would like some opportunity to at least partially atone. To our leaders, a plea: This time, don't tell us to go shopping.