The Problem with the GM Gamble

The problem with the GM Gamble is not that the government is involved. There is every indication that government involvement is not that bad. Medicare and the notion of public guarantees of medical care are not noxious. And the President has, in the case of GM, said he will leave the nuts and bolts up to those who know about business.

I know that is a weak assurance but it shows that in the Obama world, government involvement is not going to be the problem.

The problem is the car.

There are times when I think Obama is playing a game which is utterly necessary, given the obtuseness of our media and the knee-jerk capacity of the populace to take umbrage if an idol comes close to toppling.

The game is not the change Obama will bring. It is the change that is coming willy nilly that no one wants to see.

Take the current "recession" which is really a readjustment and a signal to the market. What few want to see is that the readjustment is in the direction of the public over the private, the reclamation of public space over private space, the creation of public options over private ones.

We are being thrown together whether we like it or not.

What Obama cannot say, though he has in fact talked all around it, is that we will no longer be a privatized commuter society where driving a private car and living in a detached house is the norm.

What Obama cannot say, though it is implicit, is that the design of our schools, of our hospitals, of our human settlements is a problem, because it is all predicated on the car and cars are going to be less and less the norm.

What will become the norm is seamless transit within communities and new modes of transit between them.

Michael Moore has a good piece from which I will draw the salient statements with which I profoundly agree:

3. Announce that we will have bullet trains criss-crossing this country in the next five years. Japan is celebrating the 45th anniversary of its first bullet train this year. Now they have dozens of them. Average speed: 165 mph. Average time a train is late: under 30 seconds. They have had these high speed trains for nearly five decades -- and we don't even have one! The fact that the technology already exists for us to go from New York to L.A. in 17 hours by train, and that we haven't used it, is criminal. Let's hire the unemployed to build the new high speed lines all over the country. Chicago to Detroit in less than two hours. Miami to DC in under 7 hours. Denver to Dallas in five and a half. This can be done and done now.

4. Initiate a program to put light rail mass transit lines in all our large and medium-sized cities. Build those trains in the GM factories. And hire local people everywhere to install and run this system.

5. For people in rural areas not served by the train lines, have the GM plants produce energy efficient clean buses.

6. For the time being, have some factories build hybrid or all-electric cars (and batteries). It will take a few years for people to get used to the new ways to transport ourselves, so if we're going to have automobiles, let's have kinder, gentler ones. We can be building these next month (do not believe anyone who tells you it will take years to retool the factories -- that simply isn't true).

7. Transform some of the empty GM factories to facilities that build windmills, solar panels and other means of alternate forms of energy. We need tens of millions of solar panels right now. And there is an eager and skilled workforce who can build them.

8. Provide tax incentives for those who travel by hybrid car or bus or train. Also, credits for those who convert their home to alternative energy.

The car was and remains the central chip in the game. Cheney and Company cannot see beyond a world where Oil and The Car are objects of worship and cause for war. The American people are not ready yet to be told that the private car is the idol that needs to be shattered. Obama is left with the need to temporize. And I suppose the real question is whether he sees the new road beyond the spaghetti bowl world of today.

I believe the answer has to be yes, because it remains true that we are at the beginning of a new stage where the world is creating a new option for living. The nation that understands that will prosper. The nation that believes the answer lies in selling enough private cars to turn a profit is whistling in the wind.