After my last discouraging post on the bleak politics of fiscal policy, I thought I’d attempt something a bit cheerier. Why don’t we try to brainstorm some ideas for making things better?
As a bit of an introduction (or small digression) the other day I read a post from a woman whom I gather was laid off from a researcher’s job in biotechnology. Politically, she seems a bit left of center. In her post she bitterly declaimed that the problems with the economy weren’t structural, it was just a question of greedy, ignorant managers trying to squeeze the last dollar out the enterprises they manage by off-shoring anything that could possibly be off-shored (not to mention some things that can’t). Far be it from me to defend greedy, ignorant managers (I work with them every day) but what she was complaining about are structural problems.
As I’ve repeated here far too frequently, I believe we have structural economic problems that limiting the time horizon you’re considering to just the last ten years obscures. I think our problems go back much farther and, unless you believe that bubbles of historic proportions are somehow normal, economic growth and its adjunct, employment growth, have been more phlegmatic than they should have been and should be going into the future.
Getting beyond the ideological wrangling and the obvious exceptional issues with our healthcare and financial systems, what should we be doing?
1. Cheap energy
I think that the discussion of energy over the last 30 years but over the last five or six years in particular has been too claustrophobic. The objective, as some have put it, should be energy that is too cheap to meter rather than figuring out how to get by with a lot less energy.
My preference in this area is for small thorium-based fission reactors. These get around many of the security and safety issues posed by yesterday’s reactors. If there’s one area in which I’d like to see an “X Prize”-type contest this is it. However, they’re not the only alternative.
There are other things that go right along with cheap energy including a more capacious, flexible, and resilient power distribution system. With cheap energy all sorts of things become possible; without it I honestly don’t see a particularly bright future.
2. Advanced fabrication techniques
This includes fab labs, 3D digital printing, desktop manufacturing and a host of related activities. If you’re concerned about competing with the Chinese on price, zero labor costs sounds like a pretty good way to do it. This technology will induce a radical reorganization of manufacturing away from dull, boring, mindless, repetitive activities and grant a premium to design.
3. More agriculture and a greater variety of crops
I know that this may seem counter-intuitive but I think there’s a lot of potential for increasing our agricultural production and agricultural exports. Did you know that the Netherlands is the third largest agricultural exporter? Me, neither. If the Netherlands can be an agricultural exporting powerhouse, we can certainly produce a lot more. Heck, we’re twenty times the size of France and we only export twice as much.
The greater variety seems obvious to me. Our policy has been far too focused on a handful of crops for the last eighty years. One of the effects of that policy (beside the environmental effects) is to grant dominance to a handful of mega-corporations.
4. Inexpensive, effective, rigorous higher education
I’m open to other suggestions. Let’s hear your ideas.