Trains, planes, and government deals

China leads the world in solar cell manufacturingA reader responding to my last article pointed out that increasing exports means selling something overseas that we make here. In January 2004, after three years of the George W. Bush administration, manufacturing jobs stood at 14.3 million, down by 3 million jobs, or 17.5 percent from July 2000. Employment in manufacturing was at its lowest since 1950. In spite of this, the United States has remained the world’s largest manufacturer. What are we making? Airplanes. Boeings. Cessnas. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II will gross $323 billion in U.S. defense contracts alone in 2010, and Lockheed is also selling them to Israel for $96 million apiece. The UK will want some, too. They have Rolls Royce engines.

It’s pretty amazing that we need all these war birds 20 years after the Cold War ended. Seems like they’re just burning a lot of our limited fossil fuels and not doing anything to combat the secret terrorist network that is our true enemy. The soldiers on the ground have to buy their own $1,400 body armor in case a $96 million supersonic joint strike fighter whips over the horizon with the wrong attack coordinates and turns a nearby truck into hot shrapnel. Your tax dollars at work.

China, by the way, is the world’s largest manufacturer of photovoltaic cells. It seems that instead of killing people to get more oil for their rising energy demand, they are choosing to move away from oil as a source of energy, kind of a Sun Tzu win-by-not-engaging strategy. Energy independence is an inevitable necessity of a stable and productive economy. China knows this. We know it, too, and we have a much larger economy than China, so why are they producing more solar electric cells than we are? The whole world is addicted to oil, and China will be exporting more and more solar panels as the world’s oil reserves dwindle and prices skyrocket. Why them and not us?

We made the Saturn V rocket, a fine product from such trusted brands as Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Company, and IBM. Why do “solar systems” have to be custom designed and cost $40,000? George W. Bush doesn’t even have solar cells on his Crawford Texas ranch. Why don’t we have a product with plug-and-play components that bolts into the roof of the house and wires into the circuit breaker? As we manufacture more photovoltaic cells the cost per unit drops, and the cost of the energy they produce decreases, while the cost of energy produced from fossil fuels continues to rise. And yet total solar power will not meet 10% of our energy demand until 2025, fifteen years from now. We got to the moon in ten.

Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, the world’s second largest company, believes the U.S. needs at least 20% of the work force in manufacturing for sustained economic growth, compared to the 5% we currently have thanks to the outsourcing trend that began in the 1970s. The great technological innovation company, founded by Thomas Edison, has dedicated $10 billion over the next five years to its much vaunted Ecomagination initiative. Annual projected revenue for Ecomagination products is $25 billion, which leaves $23 billion per year for bonuses, or if GE is serious about creating the future of consumer products, for giant plants to manufacture plug-and-play solar panels, portable solar cell phone chargers, and even washing machines and dishwashers with solar hot water, all built by American workers.

The United States controls half of the world’s grain exports. There are 925 million hungry people in the world. Think how many Americans we could employ in turning this wealth into food products, transporting and distributing those products and securing compensation. Obviously someone has to pay for it all, and 578 million of those hungry people are in Asia, in the very same rapidly rising economy that has us running scared. Perhaps if we saturate the bleak urban landscape of Beijing with technicolor vending machines that dispense tiny adorable cans of warm wheat noodles and pork, two of our biggest agricultural products, the Chinese would be willing to spend some of their $2 trillion in U.S cash holdings. The outdoor vending machines could be solar powered.

President Obama has been playing “Ticket To Ride” on his stereo lately, dreaming both of a high speed rail system that could revolutionize the American economy and of a public that doesn’t care. Once upon a time in 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger had plans to build a 220 mph Trans-Cali railroad system, and Golden State voters were willing to pony up $10 billion in state issued bonds. Such a massive transportation project is within the realm of possibility. France has the TGV train, with an average speed of 133 mph. Japan’s Shinkansen connects major cities at speeds averaging 180 mph. Would you be willing to wait 11 hours instead of 6 to get from New York to Los Angeles if the ticket was one third of the price? Don’t forget the train can function on solar electricity while the airplane only drinks fossil fuel.

Eisenhower built the Interstate system, which revolutionized transport and united the country. Obama is advocating an efficient, reliable, easily monitored, economically viable mode of mass transport that is two to three times faster than the existing trucking/bus system. Envision a post-apocalyptic world where the American rail system serves the same function as the Roman aquaduct system, inspiring future man to higher aspiration and greater achievement. A word from the President: “This is America. We’ve always had the best infrastructure. This is work that needs to be done. There are workers who are ready to do it. All we need is the political will. This is a season for choices, and this is the choice, between decline and prosperity, and between the past and the future.”

And now it’s time for the extremely obvious railroad analogy, Taggart Transcontinental, from Modernist politico-philosopher author Ayn Rand. The railroad is the engine of trade, and serves as the lifeblood of macroeconomic existence in her masterwork, Atlas Shrugged. Dagney Taggart keeps the trains running on time. When the whole leaden/golden weight of the western world is hung around her neck, she somehow manages to keep the trains running on time. Does she do it for the profits, which are eaten by taxes? Yes. Does she do it for the bums who hop on outside the station? Yes. Most of all she does it for the honest businessman who counts on the train to get him there on time.

Our world trade and travel network is beset on all sides by problems at the corporate, government, and street level, and we have a responsibility to make it safe and efficient for the people who need it. As the shipping conglomerate CSX reminds us in their ubiquitous NPR ads, they can move a ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of fuel. What if they could move a ton of freight 436 miles on solar power faster than before? Who is going to stand in their way? The aerospace lobby?

6 replies »

  1. Good post. I think a lot of what you point out dovetails with the frustration some of us feel with the Obama administration regarding jobs. Whether we’re talking green or infrastructure, there’s SO MUCH that we could be doing to solve major national problems and by the way, creating lots of jobs in the process.

    I’d love to see the White House start pushing some of this hard in the last two years of Obama’s term….

  2. But wouldn’t it just be easier to classify a job at McDonald’s as “manufacturing” and make the numbers come out right? It worked for inflation, and unemployment.