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China leaves U.S. in green revolution dust


     Solar power station in Shenyang in northeast China's Liaoning province,
     December, 2009.  (AP Photo)

While President Obama spoke passionately about alternative energy during his presidential campaign in 2008, legislation has stalled in Congress as health care reform became the number one priority, and chewed away months of precious time as Republicans obstructed all efforts and conservative Democrats stubbornly resisted the more progressive measures in the House and Senate.  But China has managed to avoid a political and entrenched interest quagmire and moved forward with a vigorous, ambitious program to dominate global green energy development.

Thomas Friedman, author and three-times Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent and columnist for the New York Times, has written extensively  on the subject, and his latest piece bemoans the lackluster efforts in the United States as China plows inexorably ahead.  Friedman observes that this third great global revolution, following the first, the industrial revolution, which we owned, and the second, the communications revolution, which we also owned, now belongs to China, as we squabble over carbon taxes and credits back home.  If we don't make our move soon, he laments, it will be too late.   The twenty-first century will belong to China.

In Friedman's words, ". . . when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China’s Green Leap Forward," and, "We, by contrast, intend to fix Afghanistan. Have a nice day."

I wish that were all that stands in our way, but it's not.  We just don't seem to get it. Unlike during the industrial revolution and dot-com eras, the private sector is simply moving too slowly and is too stuck in the rut of coal, oil and gas giants running the show to compete with China, and to solve the critical problems of global warming, fossil fuel depletion and fossil fuel pollution in real time.  And we have done virtually nothing to transform our transportation systems from being driven by the internal combustion engine to far more efficient electrical propulsion systems.

What's sadly missing in the United States, in stark contrast to China and other nations, is proactive government leadership and investment.  We are still wrapped around the Reagan myth that government is never the solution, always the problem.  It has become a form of paralysis in this nation, that we simply can't do anything if it involves the government, because that would be socialism or Marxism or too liberal for our sensibilities.  And so we move rudderlessly into the 21st century, dependent entirely upon what corporate America decides to do, and what it wants to do mostly is make money, apparently, and not real tangible things.  Hence the increasing domination of Wall Street and the financial sector in the economy as opposed to manufacturing, innovation and technology.

We are also hampered by our pathological fears of terrorism,  the national debt, and taxing the rich, who have enjoyed a tax holiday since 1987 so irresponsibly generous that the middle class has been fleeced of much of its wealth.  We are blinded as to what we ought to be doing as a nation.  Instead, we fight useless, counterproductive wars and call for an end to government spending just at the time that we need a massive investment in energy, transportation and infrastructure, the very things that would pull us out of this disastrous economic crater that the Wall Street titans crash-landed us into.

That's all bad enough.  But along came the underpants bomber,  which has, unfortunately, not convinced us of the folly of our wasted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but renewed Republican efforts to focus our attention exclusively on the "war on terror," because they believe national security is the key to electoral success in 2010 and 2012.  Never mind what the country really needs. 

I regard Friedman's column as a must read for all concerned Americans, but I don't agree with his conclusion that, "we need to put in place a long-term carbon price that stimulates and rewards clean power innovation."  That translates to a carbon tax on ordinary Americans, and that's just not fair. And it's too slow.   The rich have enjoyed a tax bonanza for over two decades and have squandered their undeserved trillions gambling in Wall Street casinos instead of putting it all to work building a twenty-first century real, tangible economy. They've had long enough.  It's time to restore a progressive income and capital gains tax and to put the money into what we need as a nation.

Fat chance, unfortunately.

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