html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: And I have high hopes for an Obama presidency.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

And I have high hopes for an Obama presidency.

I keep looking at this post on what the Sac Bee thinks is the most important stories of the day. Prof. Rauchway notices that the Bee doesn't mention the presidential campaign; in the comments, PorJ suggests that this is how all newspapers will respond to keep customers: limit the politics, run personal experience stories, be hyper-local. I think the Bee was right on, though. Maybe they're omitting national political stories because they can't compete with online sources for those*, but for whatever reason, I think they've hit on the important stories of the day.

The three stories the Sac Bee chose are a big jump in the cost of gas, the collapse of the west coast salmon fishery and former Governor Spitzer's wife's appearance at his press conference. I could have done without the last, on account of how I don't care, but how political wives act in scandals seems to interest lots of other people. The two other stories, on gas prices and the salmon collapse, will matter vastly more to Californians than anything that happened in the presidential race yesterday.

In fact, either of those stories will have more impact on Californian quality of life than the outcome of the Democratic primary**. Big jumps in gas prices are going to test whether gas price elasticity is as generous as it always has been. Since our housing patterns depend on that, lots of stuff in your daily life cascades from it. Size of house, length of commute, type of commute, city densities... or just the effects of the price of gas, like cost of food, cost of any trucked good, type of car you drive. In twenty years, you'll feel every piece of that much more concretely than any difference between a Clinton or Obama presidency. The story on salmon? Well, it matters a whole lot to the salmon industry, which will likely end this year. It matters a little to people who like to eat salmon. More than that, though, is the fact that the last time a fish species collapsed like this, Californians south of the Delta lost one-third of their water. Yesterday, the water wholesaler for municipal southern California raised their rates by 14%, and wanted to raise them by 20%. These news stories aren't abstract in the least. They point to the drivers that will shape us far more than political contests.

That got me thinking. Prof. Rauchway is a historian, and for most of American history, resource contraints on our behavior didn't really exist. There was more land, more timber, more water, more coal, more everything. Sometimes you needed a technological jump to access a resource, but we solved those. In a place with no effective constraints, you might as well watch what people are doing. Their behaviors will determine what happens. That's not where we are anymore. We are at limits; resource constraints are closing in around us. People will get herded in from urban sprawl when they cannot afford their house and a tank of gas twice a week. People will come in from the desert when it is too expensive to buy trucked food and air conditioning. In this new system, it is entertaining to watch political contests, but they aren't going to matter much compared to the forces operating on us. The best we can do with our political contests is choose how well we transition and who bears the costs. Important stuff, but small compared to the forces our lifestyle has set in motion.

I am pleased with the Sac Bee's choice of stories. They've hit on what is going to matter. We're on a rollercoaster now, so I'm glad they're describing the route.










*Although I've felt some silly regional pride at the journalism coming out of national McClatchy Group. Their name is all over town.

**I'd say either is more important to how Californians experience life than the overall presidential election, except that McCain would continue to spend staggering sums of money to perpetuate endless war. That expenditure will one day come home in ways we feel.

6 Comments:

Anonymous SwissArmyD said...

I think local reportage is really handy, and more important to our immediate condition. But it is oversimplifying to say that people will get their national news elsewhere. A lot of people not only don't, but don't care so much FOR national news. It's understandable, since there is so much shouting about the irrelevant in media in general. Who needs another soundbyte about a politician. That IS the important thing though. Local media used to at least give a somewhat more indepth look at some of the soundbyte issues, to get you more info on them. It may not be as true now since my own paper online editions uses a lot of AP and Reuters ledes for national, and have let a lot of their reporters go. Those stories are often utter crap. It always amuses me when I find a spelling or other error in a story like that since my spelling isn't golden either.

So, it still seems like something is missing. The reason I think that is relvant to you is that as you mentioned, there ARE things a pres can do that will create issues to be dealt with later. Like the push of ethanol as a short term fuel measure instead of funding research into plugin hybrids. Like doing research into the power grid to see if plugins will make everything worse gridwise. The responses to the '73 oil embargo are resonating today... as well as what wasn't kept on the front burner in response to that. What affects you locally is always important, but you have to keep an eye on the national, before you suddenly notice that the BLM has authorized someone to drill in your favorite field...


also?
"People will get herded in from urban sprawl when they cannot afford their house and a tank of gas twice a week." M

OK, I'll bite. if they can't afford the gas, what makes you think they will be able to afford to move? What will happen if they have to take the hit and abandon a house they actually own?

There are and will be reverberations to a transition such as this, ones that nobody is actually knowing the price of. In my heart of hearts I think it may eventually look like the dustbowl, where mass displacements cause an incalculable amount of human misery. Where will these people go? How can they afford to get there?

It is easy to say that they are already making bad choices, because it is true. Pulling back from that brink is less easy.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

there ARE things a pres can do that will create issues to be dealt with later.

Sure, but I don't think Obama's and Clinton's energy policies are substantially different. Both have good solid policy platforms, with minor tweaks. Their main difference is in type of approach.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There was more land, more timber, more water, more coal, more everything. Sometimes you needed a technological jump to access a resource, but we solved those ... That's not where we are anymore. We are at limits; resource constraints are closing in around us."

Given that it's a lot less fun to be poor than it is to write about other people being poor, I'd expect that, as a society, we'll continue to do what we've done in the past -- namely, keep unconstraining ourselves by developing new technologies, the way we've been doing now for several centuries.

Doing so is highly feasible. It's just that for some decades, we've had the fashionable habit of considering such innovation unnecessary. To the degree that continuing to do what we're doing starts making our lives miserable, though, it'll give us a strong incentive to start innovating again.


--Erich Schwarz

6:25 PM  
Blogger 無名 - wu ming said...

to put it in a historical analogy, we are facing the real closing of the frontier, and we're only just starting to grasp the significance of what that might entail.

11:33 PM  
Anonymous HC said...

There is a long tradition stretching back past Malthus of people predicting that this time resource constraints are going to dominate. As you note, people have made technological jumps as needed, and the constraints then weren't - in your phrase - effective.

What makes these limits ineluctable?

12:46 AM  
Anonymous mith said...

"I'd say either is more important to how Californians experience life than the overall presidential election, except that McCain would continue to spend staggering sums of money to perpetuate endless war. That expenditure will one day come home in ways we feel."

Don't make the mistake of thinking the Democratic candidates will operate any differently with the power of the presidency. Despite their rhetoric, their voting record indicates they're more than happy to spend staggering sums of money on endless war.

"People will get herded in from urban sprawl when they cannot afford their house and a tank of gas twice a week. People will come in from the desert when it is too expensive to buy trucked food and air conditioning."

I look forward to this day, if only because I'll be able to buy up their land cheap and continue growing my own food.

Enjoy your urban population control, suckers.

6:23 AM  

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