America on Its Knees Thanks to Generation Greed, McMansions and SUVs

One reason for the war in Ukraine, and perhaps many others to come, is the perception on the part of autocrats that the United States is a nation in decline.  They are right, and it isn’t something that has happened in the last year.  It is something that has happened in the last 40 years.  Four decades of cashing in the future to make things easier in the present, four decades of making those generations born before 1958 the priority compared with those born after.  As a result the United States is deep in debt, and dependent on others to keep lending us more and more money to buy things we can no longer make ourselves and, given falling average pay, can no longer afford.  And the U.S. and its allies are collectively dependent on fossil fuels under the control of autocrats.

That’s why the U.S. has been bogged down in the Middle East for two generations.  And it is why economic sanctions against Russia are so weak.   A stronger country would be telling Russia and, if needed, China, you want to overthrow democratic regimes?  Fine.  You are cut off from the rest of us economically until that stops, and we’ll figure out a way to make things work.  But apparently, we can’t do that.  Sending someone else’s children off to fight and perhaps get killed or crippled in a war?  Maybe.  Gasoline at $5.00 a gallon?  Interest rates at 5 percent?  Please Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi, Al Qaeda and Isis, we surrender!

The theory of sanctions is that the U.S. can wage an economic war in order to avoid the catastrophe of a military war, without surrendering.  But the last time an American leader called for economic sacrifice – when Jimmy Carter said that conservation and the pursuit of alternative energy was the moral equivalent of war — he was turned out of office.  

Carter, who had fought in WWII, was out of step with the generations that have dominated this country politically and economically, in their own short-term self-interest, ever since his administration.  When George W. Bush, in the wake of 9/11, said that Americans should show their patriotism by borrowing money, cashing in savings, and going shopping – that was more like it.

In this post I’ll give examples of what a more capable country waging the moral equivalent of war might actually do.  And what individual Americans, if they wanted to, could do themselves.

x

This is yet another example of how our collective excess consumption, and reliance on going into debt to pay for it, has crippled our country.  With some people and generations consuming much more than others, leaving behind debts and stripping away assets.   Now all that is left is to find someone else to blame.  Right wingers are actually saying that everything was Great Again just over a year ago, when Joe Biden took office, ignoring the fact that he has basically carried out Trump’s policies.  Not that he has any choice at this point.

It is easy to show up in Times Square and wave signs.  Anything more than that?

Here is what is actually going on.

https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/26/economy/russia-economic-power-sanctions/index.html

In the face of its invasion of Ukraine, why is the West reluctant to hit it with the full range of available economic sanctions as has been done with other rogue states?  The answer is simple: Oil and natural gas.

Russia is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and one of the largest exporters of oil. Some experts say cutting off those exports could drive up the prices of those commodities as much as 50% by some estimates, far more than far more modest single-digit spikes in prices experienced this past week.

Russia and Ukraine are also among the largest exporters of grain.  And while the U.S. doesn’t need either directly, the market is global, and by manipulating supply Russia and other oil exporters can enrich themselves and send the U.S. and Europe into recession.  The result would be regime change in the next election.

“Europe would have had to resort to price controls and rationing,” he said. “That would be very unpopular. They weren’t willing to pay the price.”

Russia also has a rich supply of other natural resources, including lumber and many minerals. It is the second-largest producer of titanium, which is crucial for aircraft production, and Ukraine is the fifth-largest producer of the metal. Boeing could be in trouble if supplies are cut off, CEO Dave Calhoun conceded on a January earnings call.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/woodmackenzie/2022/02/24/what-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-means-for-commodities/?sh=6763d28369ba

Russia has timed its move from a position of strength. With the global economy surging, the world needs all the commodities it can get its hands on, not least Russia’s exports of gas, oil, coal metals, petrochemicals and fertiliser.

Sanctions on exports of these essential commodities are unthinkable – there are no quick fixes should Russia’s supplies be cut off. OPEC has already signalled it won’t ramp up production to lower prices.

High commodity prices, inflated by the crisis, are a boon for Russia. Higher export revenues will boost an existing fiscal surplus and swell buoyant financial reserves.

Global warming is an example of an issue that can be mined by appealing to short term selfishness. Whatever harm it causes, for the most part, will only arrive after those who control our nation’s politics are gone, and if they really gave a damn about those coming after things would have been really different for the past 40 years. But no one was thinking about global warming when President Carter made his speeches on energy. They were thinking about the economic and national security implications of our dependence and excess consumption. Those consequences are right now.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/feb/25/this-is-how-we-defeat-putin-and-other-petrostate-autocrats

One of the worst parts of facing today’s reality is our impotence in its face. Yes, America is imposing sanctions, and yes, that may eventually hamper Putin. But the Russian leader made his move knowing we could not actually fight him in Ukraine – and indeed knowing that his hinted willingness to use nuclear weapons will make it hard to fight him anywhere, though one supposes we will have no choice if he attacks a Nato member.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to dramatically reduce Putin’s power. One way, in particular: to get off oil and gas.

This is not a “war for oil and gas” in the sense that too many of America’s Middle East misadventures might plausibly be described. But it is a war underwritten by oil and gas, a war whose most crucial weapon may be oil and gas, a war we can’t fully engage because we remain dependent on oil and gas. If you want to stand with the brave people of Ukraine, you need to find a way to stand against oil and gas.

Not willing to let a crisis go to waste, this environmental advocate wants the U.S. to stop using oil and gas practically immediately.  I don’t think that’s realistic.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things the U.S. can’t do immediately to reduce demand, and increase supply in the short term, to offset half of what other democratic countries would lose.  If those democratic countries took similar steps the supply-demand balance would shift completely.  There would be too much oil and gas, and other producers would be thanking their lucky stars Russian oil and gas was off the market.

As one “senior state department official” told the Wall Street Journal this week, “doing anything that affects … or halts energy transactions would have a great impact on the United States, American citizens and our allies.  So our intention here is to impose the hardest sanctions we can while trying to safeguard the American public and the rest of the world from those measures,” the official said. It’s obviously not an idle fear: as of this morning Tucker Carlson was attacking Russia hawk Lindsey Graham for supporting a conflict that will bring “higher gas prices” while he has a “generous Congressional pension”. If you’re an apologist for fascism, high gas prices are your first go-to move…

We should be in agony today – people are dying because they want to live in a democracy, want to determine their own affairs. But that agony should, and can, produce real change. (And not just in Europe. Imagine not having to worry about what the king of Saudi Arabia thought, or the Koch brothers – access to fossil fuel riches so often produces retrograde thuggery.) Caring about the people of Ukraine means caring about an end to oil and gas.

Also not willing to let a crisis go to waste, lobbyists for U.S. oil and gas producers are demanding more government subsidies and the right to increase their pollution.  But having the U.S. and its allies shun Russian oil and gas, and thus higher prices for the foreseeable further, ought to be the only incentive they need to increase production.  The same is true for American grain producers.  We don’t need to further wreck our future to benefit politically powerful war profiteers.

And as for long-term projects requiring substantial investment, like the electrification of transportation and having everyone suddenly start taking mass transit, long term is what they are.  Most of the world is dependent on Russia and China for the materials, and in China’s case the equipment, to make electrification possible.  And thanks to Generation Greed’s lifestyle choices most Americans live in places where mass transit is not cost effective or energy efficient, and in buildings where just living requires massive energy use.  

The labor, energy and materials required to replace every SUV and McMansion in the next eight months isn’t there.  In fact, the world has not been producing enough housing and private motor vehicles as it is, and there is a shortage of new and used vehicles that most Americans can afford that is currently worse than any shortage of oil and gas.  The generations in charge have put a gun to their own heads, and demanded that those coming after pay up, or they’ll shoot them first.

What could a different country do in the short term?  What could people do themselves?  I would focus on three things – transportation that might work given the existing development pattern, heating and cooling, and food.

It is worth noting that Wednesday, the day after the State of the Union Address, is Ash Wednesday.  I’ve read that back in the old days fasting during Lent was much more severe than it is today.  Why?  I believe the reason was social solidarity.  Before refrigeration and global supply chains, food would be in short supply in northern climates during the spring, before the first crops of the new year became available.  Imagine how it would have been if the kings, courtiers, bishops and the rich were feasting as the peasant starved?  Fasting during Lent meant that everyone cut back together.

Today we are the rich, and a huge share of the food we grow is used to feed meat animals, not people, as Bloomberg News showed in the map I linked in this post.  

But Russia and the Ukraine supply a large share of the grain traded on the global market, and if that is disrupted poorer countries could face famine.

Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s top wheat exporters. So when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Thursday, global grain supply was put in jeopardy, and the price of wheat jumped to its highest levels since 2012.

Wheat markets surged by the maximum amount allowed by the Chicago exchange on Thursday, trading 5.7% higher at $9.3475 a bushel at 8:26 a.m. in London on Thursday, while in Paris, milling wheat is being traded 16% higher. Oilseed and soybeans also had a broad rally on the back of escalating tensions.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could affect the 59 million metric tons (mmt) of wheat Russia and Ukraine export each season around the world. Ukraine alone exports 24 mmt of wheat, which is primarily grown and milled in the country’s southeast, in close proximity to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to which Russia has already deployed troops. 

But all Americans would have to do is cut back on meat consumption, and have its farmers produce more food for people and less for animals, and this global shortage – another aspect of global inflation – would be reduced.  It would be better for the environment, Americans’ health, and the economy – maybe or massive trade deficit, at a record last year, would shrink a little for a change.

It could even help with the labor shortage, if more Americans cooked their own meals, allowing the U.S. to produce more of what we consume instead of less as the Baby Boomers retire.  What has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when the U.S. trade was in balance?  A vastly higher share of U.S. food consumption is fast food produced not by teenagers but by adults, and prepared meals are a huge share of what people eat.  That isn’t good for health or the family budget either.

_________________________________________________________________________

If most Americans won’t actually have a financial necessity to cut back on meat or purchased and prepared meals, how about an energy fast?

The one thing most Americans can do immediately is reduce the extent to which they drive their own private motor vehicles alone.  Because those vehicles weight so much more than a passenger, only one percent of the energy they consume is used to move the passenger forward. 

Most Americans can’t suddenly start using mass transit, which has been degraded, perhaps permanently, by a bi-partisan policy of suburban sprawl, de-funding and rising costs to enrich politically manipulative unions and contractors.  But more people could bike or e-bike, something that would also improve their health if those in the SUVs don’t run them over.

They could also carpool.  I’ve long advocated a dynamic carpooling system in which riders pay slightly more than a transit fare, drivers – taking people along on trips they were taking anyway — are not taxed on that income (they use it to offset the cost of their own car) or charged more for insurance, and the organization operating the matching,vetting and billing service collects only a small fare per ride — perhaps 50 cents. My most recent post describing how dynamic carpooling could work was this one from seven years ago, pointing out that Uber and Lyft are anything but. 

A widespread shift to bikes, e-bikes, and dynamic carpooling, along with more working and shopping from home (without stupid stuff like 15 minute delivery of one tube of toothpaste) could slash the need for both energy and additional cars and SUVs immediately, even in suburban and rural areas.  What would Jesus do?  I doubt that if he was going to church, he’d be alone in a 6,000-pound SUV.  

What about heating and cooling?  In the short term, Americans could use less air conditioning over the summer by acclimating their bodies to higher temperatures and using fans.  And they could use the warm months to caulk their windows and improve the insulation of their homes, to reduce the need to heat during the subsequent winter.  

Perhaps, in cases where two empty nesters (or perhaps one after the divorce) is rattling around in a 4,000-square-foot house, they could either sell to a larger family and downsize, or install multi-zone heating and cooling and only use one part of it for a while.  These steps not only help the global energy supply and the environment.  They save money. 

And if those over 55 in houses with extra rooms are allowed to add accessory apartments, it could also alleviate a housing shortage and a retirement income shortage and a social interaction shortage.

Since the generations that have been in charge for 40 years have left those coming after so much poorer, and facing a future of higher taxes and diminished public services and benefits, finding alternatives that cost less will be an imperative going forward.  

That is the best part about all of these suggestions.  Selfish people don’t have to do anything.  Neither, for the most part, do the government, or the rich, or politically powerful public employee unions in places like New York, or those ages 65 and older.  All of these steps, and then more over time, can be taken by individuals.  A “coalition of the willing.”  And just because the price of food, energy, housing and motor vehicles has increased, that doesn’t mean people can be forced to pay more in total.  They can also use less. 

Do you care about the people of Ukraine – and for that matter Russia, and the rest of Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.?  Do you care about your own future?    All these suggestions re better for the individual and family, as well as the community, United States, and world.  That was true before Russia invaded Ukraine.  In fact, it has been true for five decades.

One more point about what is going on in Russia and the Ukraine.  The world is about to go through a huge change.  For most of my life, and still today, the problem has been too many people and an exploding population, putting pressure on resources, as human beings transform the entire planet for their own use, jobs and the economy.  But in the next century all that is about to change, and a new challenge will arise. 

Instead of just defusing the “population bomb,” we’ve blown right past replacement, to levels of childbirth that will eventually cause the population to shrink.  Something that has already happened in Russia, the Ukraine and Europe generally, China, Japan, Korea and large parts of Latin American, to a huge extent.  And, since 2008, the United States as well.  Although the U.S. congress many not understand this, parents and children are about to become a national resource far more critical that oil and gas. 

To the extent I’ve met people from Russia, the Ukraine, Poland and similar places who have moved here, they’ve seemed like good people.  Thoughtful people.  Family people.  Hard working people.  Often nice people, though they don’t seem to like each other much.  Russians have contributed much to the history of humanity, but the way things are going there aren’t going to be any.  You’d think Putin would be worried about that, and not re-creating the Russian empire.

So if there were really the need to wage a non-military war on Russia, a demographic war could be added to the economic war.  Social media could be used to identify, say, 30 million Russians age 40 and under, married with children and skills.  The kind of skills their science has produced.  The kind of manual skills we’ve lost due to deindustrialization.  Agricultural skills – I hear the average age of a U.S. farmer is 67.  People who would be a real asset to whoever lived around them.  And – people with no ties to the Putin regime.  And say “tired of living under Putin?  Come on over!”  The U.S. and Canada get 15 million, and Europe gets 15 million. (To make it an even better deal for us we could ship the Russian Mafia back to Putin).

I don’t really want to destroy Russia.  We have had enough trouble with inflated housing prices from too many Americans wanting to live in just a few large metro areas as it is, let alone having everyone move to just a few countries.  But given the way things have been going, with the rise of evil tribalists around the world…

This isn’t something I just thought of.  If I were President, in fact, there would already be a list.

2 thoughts on “America on Its Knees Thanks to Generation Greed, McMansions and SUVs

  1. larrylittlefield Post author

    Former President Bush — America addicted to oil. What sacrifices were eventually agreed to? Changing the date of Daylight Savings Time. That was 2006, 18 years ago. Jimmy Carter’s speech was 45 years ago. The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo was 49 years ago. Wars, energy crisis driven recessions. No message has been enough.

  2. larrylittlefield Post author

    The response to Carter, at the time, in the video below. Higher oil prices led to a boom, but then OPEC cranked up production and wiped it out. “Please give us another oil boom we won’t screw it up” was a popular bumper sticker at the time. It’s time for the last oil boom, and the conservation and alternative energy Carter talked about. I hope oil and gas prices never go down again, so we’ll take the steps that should have been taken over the past 45 years — regardless of global warming.

Comments are closed.