As I sit here furloughed along with nearly the entire culinary industry among others (unemployment hit 25.6% on May 9th), my only solace is that there truly is so much work to be done. There are also vast resources we can tap to start doing it. The public needs to begin thinking about these topics because politicians won’t. Political and economic imagination is up to us. Hopefully, I can inspire others to sit down and start outlining their take. What needs to be done and what public institutions can we invent to organize it?
I have long thought the current American nightmare would end with the creation of a mandatory civil service as a new equalizing institution for the public good. This would be aimed at climate change and infrastructure rather the military. Murmurs of this are increasing and even David Brooks just penned a watery version. Many feared this was upend colleges and universities, but those are imploding from the pandemic anyhow.
Other people are starting to talk about a jobs guarantee which is worth being familiar with. FDR and MLK pushed for this over half a century ago. One way I see these programs differing is that a civil service has a substantial vocational education focus while the initial descriptions I’ve read about a jobs guarantee is that it is largely unskilled and often brief. In the end, we are going to need a spectrum of programs.
To get a lot of this moving, we may need to nationalize select strategic industries. This is not socialism, it is merely public. We are not doing away with capitalism, we are simply recognizing the parts of capitalism people enjoy are build on a public foundation. Capitalist entrepreneurs love the public post office because it is equalizing. We build our private pursuits on a public foundation. Public goods are not free stuff, but stuff that makes you free and able to practice the real capitalism. In a recent post, I explored the idea of a seldom acknowledged public wealth and explained that the public is the largest capitalist. It needs to start acting like it!
Some things should be public and others should be private and we really need to know which should be which. Green energy production should be public and among the focal points of a civil service (as well as water infrastructure management). You cannot take an online class sold to you by Bill Gates to manufacture and erect a wind mill. The hands on capital intensive education required to build and administer a green energy grid should be baked into a service program.
Many manufacturing skills will have to be learned tangentially and select industries such as personal protective equipment (PPE) should be national among other critical medical disposables and reagents creating an active reservoir of manufacturing ability. We have recently seen that it is dangerous to be reliant on outsourced production during a pandemic. This threatens American safety and independence at many obvious levels. Critically, it is also dangerous to lose manufacturing know how that can retool industries in response to emerging needs. America gave that up and it needs to create a public space where experience can be cultivated and retained. Health care disposables may be such a practical sector. Taiwan was able to quickly retool and increase PPE production by 1000%, American was not.
Many are investigating this topic and wondering why can we make airplanes (which have problems) but not disposable swabs? [A nice related read] At the same time, there is substantial pent up interest in revitalizing American manufacturing. Youtube machining channels are wildly popular and have produced numerous stars. This community and their ability to share knowledge and demonstrate American values is among the most inspiring things I’ve come across lately (I’ve learned to run a lathe and mill). This is not niche. My neighbor, a lawyer with a big house, saw me moving a piece of heavy equipment (an 800 lb. milling machine) and asked me if I watched his favorite machinist (This Old Tony). Viewership is staggeringly beyond people who own this equipment. Every high school used to have a Bridgeport mill then they slowly sold them off and have whittled education down to requiring zero capital, while also being ineffective.
Other targets for national industries would be high externality (polluting industries). Nearly the entire recycling industry would need to be public to actually get true recycling done. Private enterprise can haul recycling from your house then it gets dumped and often trashed or shipped overseas to countries that now reject it. Public projects will have to create the next generation of material science to create substrates for private industry. The government should produce green raw materials and the price should reflect what they truly cost society. Next generation ideas will make them viable or they may have to be subsidized but there truly is nothing wrong with that.
In many cases, recycling is just like aluminum smelting which is referred to as “pure electricity” and production will be closely tied to energy production. Geographically, where wind and solar produce energy surpluses, recycling and other green processes will follow. This also distributes production, likely to rural areas creating an economic revival. Private industry cannot coordinate this because the projects are too massive. Only government can. At the same time, these public works projects unleash tremendous energy for private industry.
New green materials should be created like a government deck board from recycled plastic that competes with wood and truly reuses all the plastics we recycle. Single use food service disposables could also be a national product so that we ensure a level playing field for private industry (mom & pop shops) and full incentive to use it. Many chemical industries can be brought back to America with next generation green processes. It wasn’t only difficult producing swabs for Covid testing kits, we also lost control of simple chemical reagents that were part of the kits.
An anecdote I like to tell is about a friend who took over Donald Rumsfeld’s chemical plant in Georgia. This massive 500 million dollar campus used a complicated chemical method for creating the sweetener, aspartame. The price collapsed when the Chinese used a next generation biological method of creating this molecule which required far less energy and capital. For many chemicals there are next generation methods waiting to be used, both greener and more efficient that can justify bringing them back. If private industry cannot make the investment without subsidy, the public sector can as part of a Green New Deal and helping maintain our reservoir of manufacturing ability.
What I have learned from studying the distilling industry is that in many sectors private industry today is often incapable of any research and development. I have seen new American distilleries with 10 and 20 million dollar investments not able to perform basic investigations related to their own processes and in many cases they are equipped with no laboratories. That much investment gets you very little in-house expertise and there is a reliance on outsourced testing and consultants.
Historically, advancement in the distillery (and much of agriculture) has happened at government agricultural experiment stations and they need an expanded focus under a Green New Deal. Private industry needs a place it can go to receive new ideas. The threat of climate change means that agricultural regions and crop allocations will shift. Intellectual property developed by the public (public domain) is part of our justification for taxing private industry.
There is nothing radical about getting work done and there is nothing socialist about any of this. This is more than jump starting the economy after a recession, this is about sustaining an equitable economy while maintaining the best parts of capitalism. America’s wealth is vast, but the average person does not feel it. Previously, pork projects were used to allocate wealth to the “chosen people”. We can decide to trade pork for true public works projects that solve collective problems and the narrow “chosen people” to everybody.
In the Green New Deal, it is very hard for me to decide if I would want to work at the next generation of the Rum Pilot Plant experiment station or become a heavy industry machinist. The prospect of either is incredible.