The Change We Need - Part II: Will We Sustain The Current Economy, Or Create A Sustainable Economy?

iStock_000005952276XSmall hands hold plant.jpg
Yesterday, Rick Cole discussed the theoretical basis for the most effective kinds of economic change. Today, he provides specific suggestions. – The Editors

No brief outline can do justice to weaving together the potentially convergent strands that compose the key elements of the remaking of the American economy. None of the policy prescriptions here are original, but it is important to see them as complimentary parts of a larger whole:

•GREEN BUSINESS: This means shifting from thinking of “green jobs” as being generated by alternative energy to an understanding that, in the decade ahead, every single job in the American economy will be “green”, as we ruthlessly pursue less wasteful, more sustainable and more productive business practices. This is primarily the domain of the private sector, but Federal policies that deal with taxes, regulations, research, purchasing and grant-making must all be tweaked to actively promote green practices, rather than inadvertently hinder them.

•SMART GROWTH: The suburban, auto-dominated landscape of the past fifty years is not only unsustainable on a world-scale, it won’t work for a post peak oil, post carbon America. Alternate fuels are not enough, nor will public transit work in sprawled suburbs. Chicago is the headquarters for the Congress for the New Urbanism, a largely apolitical movement of architects, planners, developers and activists promoting a revival of traditional town and city building that emphasizes mixed-use, transit-oriented design at every scale of development from neighborhood to metropolis. While catching on in cities and states across the country, the movement remains largely marginalized in Washington. One exception is Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an early Obama backer from Portland, Oregon. Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist has also laid out a program for reversing the Federal government’s half century of counter-productive policies.

•REGIONALISM: Obama’s speech to the US Conference of Mayors embraced this powerful focus on metro regions as the engines of global growth. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has been one of its leading theoreticians, and former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros one of its most eloquent champions. Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Portland, Chattanooga and St. Louis have emerged as models for metro/suburban collaboration to promote infrastructure investment, economic development and land use planning. Europe has pioneered this kind of regional collaboration to stay competitive in the global economy. There is also a powerful social equity dimension to this movement, which ensures that inner cities will not be left of out the regional efforts to improve education, reinvest in older communities, and focus on the creation of high-wage, high-value jobs.

•TRANSPORTATION: In 1991, Senator Pat Moynihan spearheaded the least-heralded major domestic policy shift of that decade, the landmark ISTEA omnibus transportation bill. Unfortunately, the Clinton Administration failed to follow up on it, and left highway expansion as the continuing Federal policy direction, instead of investing in matching the investment by all other advanced economies in both high-speed rail and public transit. This has been compounded by the Bush Administration’s embrace of libertarian market mechanisms for funding future transportation investment. This failure has fueled sprawl and its appetite for oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The new administration will need to start where ISTEA left off to rebuild our goods- and people-moving capacity 0n an environmentally and economically sustainable model.

•HUMAN CAPITAL: Obama’s education program needs to be place-based in a way that directly ties into the drive to restore American competitiveness. Mayors around the country have followed the lead of Chicago’s Richard Daly in seeing the revival of K-12 schools as fundamental to restoring America’s great cities as engines of new wealth creation, and not just gentrified havens for young professionals amongst crime-ridden slums. One of Obama’s successes as an organizer was to establish a job training program in the projects. But without a national commitment to human capital, we won’t reduce the underclass, assimilate immigrants, and provide the workforce that can outperform the hard-working offshore workforce clamoring for what were once American jobs.

•INNOVATION: Obama’s popularity in Silicon Valley mirrors his embrace of venture capital investment in American jobs. The Japanese failed to shake off their decade-long slump because they remained tied to “pork barrel” public works stimulation of their economy. Harnessing private investment and entrepreneurship to rebuild America’s cities, older suburbs and essential infrastructure is essential not only to economic success, but to political success as well. We must find a way to redeploy the huge brainpower and speculative investment that has gone into financing consumer debt and exotic credit mechanisms into rebuilding America’s cities and productive economy.

•NEW ORLEANS: Of all of George Bush’s public relations stunts and policy failures, none is crueler than his broken promise to rebuild that city. Nothing would be a more powerful counter-point to those wasted years than to use the New Orleans region as a model for a rebuilt, muscular economy that puts people back to work in high-wage, high-value jobs. Of course, the default choice is tourism, gambling, and decay. But great cities are not primarily sinkholes for consumption. They’re centers of enterprise, trade and the generation of wealth.

This is simply a superficial survey of the shape of a fundamental reshaping of the American landscape and economy that could emerge from the wrenching changes ahead. “Change we can believe in” will need to look beyond Washington and its sound bite pre-occupations and stale wedge issues. It will need to harness local movements, as well as Mayors, Council members, Governors, and State Legislators to experiment with and implement a new model throughout our federalist system. Obama carries the unique advantage of having been a community organizer and a state legislator. He can be the model and the inspiration for a broad-based movement for change that is not solely reliant on Washington politics or policy.

The first 100 and the first 1000 days of the new administration will be a time of harsh testing, for Washington, and for the country. We are too big and complex a nation for any administration to chart a single course for our gargantuan economy and our diverse geography.

But a clear course that favors investment in capacity over spending on consumption, and a commitment to sustainability over business as usual could have a profound impact on the shape of American metropolitan regions and the communities they contain. That is “the change we need”.

Read: The Change We Need: Will We Sustain The Current Economy, Or Create A Sustainable Economy? Part I

Rick Cole is the City Manager in Ventura, California, where he has championed smart growth strategies and revitalization of the historic downtown. He previously spent six years as the City Manager of Azusa, where he was credited by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune with helping make it “the most improved city in the San Gabriel Valley.” He earlier served as mayor of Pasadena and has been called “one of Southern California’s most visionary planning thinkers by the LA Times.” He was honored by Governing Magazine as one of their “2006 Public Officials of the Year.”