Looking ahead – Great challenges require great solutions

Editor’s note: This is the last installment of Ochenski’s three-part look at the year that was and how it will shape 2009.

Despite the economic, political and military turbulence swirling throughout the world, 2009 is suddenly upon us and, ready or not, we will be faced with enormous challenges at both the federal and state level. At home, a new legislative session gets underway in only a few short days. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., is preparing for the Obama inauguration while the president-elect watches the national and international problems mount daily. If the challenges are great, so is the need to meet those challenges as America faces a daunting and uncertain future.

My last two columns covered the collapse of the U.S. economy, from the early signs that prompted President George W. Bush’s so-called “stimulus package” to the Wall Street whirlpool that literally sucked trillions from the savings and investments of average Americans. As we now know, a panicked Congress threw hundreds of billions of dollars at financial institutions and corporations in a futile attempt to get the sluggish economy moving. But alas, the same people who hoped for a Christmas miracle from tight-fisted consumers now pray for an after-Christmas miracle that has yet to occur.

In the meantime, the incoming Congress, now dominated by Democrats, intends to move quickly on yet another “stimulus package”—this time in the form of massive spending on government infrastructure projects.

One must wonder, however, if perhaps American-style capitalism has now gone beyond the accepted “fixes” used in the past. For instance, Bush’s stimulus package had little or no effect on the economic downturn because people used the money to pay existing debts, not to purchase new goods. Similarly, the Federal Reserve, using traditional economic recovery methods, has cut the prime interest rate to almost zero—but without a noticeable positive effect.

Taken together, the lack of results from throwing trillions of dollars at the problem suggests we may have to acknowledge that American capitalism, with its reliance on endless growth and mindless consumption, isn’t working so well in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s time to take a new look at ourselves, our systems and our situation and re-prioritize our efforts—only this time, focus those efforts on taking care of our citizenry while seriously re-regulating the corporations, Wall Street speculators and financial institutions that got us into our present situation.

If Congress and President-elect Obama wanted to craft a new order that takes care of our people directly, they would first have to throw off the yoke of the moneyed interests that now fill the halls of Washington, D.C.  We’ve heard it all before, but if anything, the recent spate of bailouts has reinforced the sad truth of the political Golden Rule—namely, those with the gold rule.

It’s somewhat discouraging to see recent articles that suggest such a political sea change is not in the cards. Instead, we are now hearing that health care—the primary cause of personal bankruptcies in the United States—is likely to be postponed in favor of yet another study group or commission. Why? If you believe the D.C. insiders who seem hesitant to pull on their insurance industry leashes, it’s just too expensive. But if we can toss trillions to corporations and financial institutions with no guarantee it will ever be paid back, couldn’t we just as easily provide Americans with the most basic necessities of health care through direct payments? Of course we could. Every other civilized nation does it and so could we. All it takes is the political courage to put citizens first.

Or how about taking care of our citizens’ energy needs directly? Instead of dumping billions into bogus “clean coal” research programs to continue our unconscionable levels of consumption, why not implement a massive, nationwide weatherization, renewable energy and efficiency program that would address the immediate needs of millions of Americans facing staggering utility bills, put people to work and provide real, not theoretical, benefits from reduced energy consumption. We already have the proven technologies for solar panels, solar hot water heaters and insulation, so no new research programs are needed—simply implement what we already know will work.

And finally, there are Bush’s wars. At some point, it must become obvious that America’s role as international overseer is no longer sustainable—not economically and not politically. The wars must end, the fiscal hemorrhaging must stop and our troops, who have been squandered on pointless conflicts, must come home to their families and communities.

Closer to home, Gov. Brian Schweitzer heads into a difficult legislative session with rapidly dwindling revenue forecasts. Schweitzer has already revised his budget once and, given the continuing economic malaise, it’s certain the budget will face further reductions by session’s end.

Yet, while revenue declines, the problems facing Montana do not. The timber industry is moribund as a direct result of the collapse of the housing market. Recent reports say even our high-growth areas are now in a state of hibernation. Efforts to “save” the timber industry are being promoted, but it may prove futile to try and save an industry with no demand for its products.

Likewise, the once-booming energy sector has experienced a radical decline in prices, from nearly $150 a barrel for oil down to a low of $36, which is having a predictable effect on industry activity as well as strangling the revenue stream that’s bolstered the budget in recent years.

The same citizen-focused efforts needed on the national level would benefit Montanans tremendously. Unfortunately, Montana’s surplus has now evaporated, taking with it the easy opportunity to bring a new day of self-sufficiency to our state. Instead, we are likely to see even greater pandering to the energy supply sector rather than a re-focusing on energy conservation and efficiency for our citizens.

The upside to these local and national challenges is less obvious. But with the very survival of the state and nation at stake, maybe, just maybe, the crisis will spur the realization that necessity now trumps ugly partisan politics. And that, fellow Montanans, would truly be something to hope for in the New Year.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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