Thursday, November 19, 2009

Space, speed and the States

I wrote this while I was still in Indiana, early morning of November 17, 2009:

TERRE HAUTE, INDIANA – Space gives freedom. Speed allows one to do more per unit of time, or do something in a short period and have more free time later. One needs speed to cover a wide space or area in a short period of time. Space and speed, they have it in the United States and other developed countries.

Packing my bags for my trip back to Manila a few hours from now, and writing this article to reflect on the recent trips I made in the US. Filipino friends in the US who hosted me after my conference in Washington DC early last week drove me to a number of places here: north Virginia-DC, Indiana, and Missouri. I also came to the US early this year, in NJ-NY last March, and California last April, all to attend sponsored conferences. Those road trips plus the view from the plane across the US mainland, here are some of my observations.

One, expansive space of America, connected by thousands of kilometers of road network, farm lands so wide although cities and suburbs are expanding and taking away some of those farmlands. Except for a few big cities, spaces are just too wide: interstate roads, city roads, housing lots, school and university lots, malls and groceries with wide parking lots, etc. People from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Japan and other Asian countries who are used to living and working in high- and medium-rise buildings will envy America’s huge residential, commercial and open spaces.

Two, very few buses that travel across America. The buses and trains – mostly owned and operated by the city governments – are concentrated in big cities. People own one or more cars to ensure their mobility anytime anywhere. If one goal of the American government is to reduce oil consumption (and carbon emission) and oil dependence from other countries, one solution is to encourage car pooling and public transportation. But this is not happening.

Three, too many cars and trucks traveling at high speed so they can cover long distances in a short period of time. And most cars have only one passenger, the driver. The presence of a big number of big cars and pick-ups that consume low mileage per gallon on the roads is also one indicator of how rich, or how profligate, the American economy is.

So, efforts by environmentalist groups or the carbon-reduction lobby groups to call for 50 percent, even up to 80 percent, reduction in carbon emission by the US economy by 2050 looks almost impossible. There is a big contradiction in the current policies of (a) train monopoly (Amtrak), interstate buses duopoly (Greyhound and another bus company), and city buses monopoly (by city governments), and encouraging car pooling and reduced usage of cars for long-distance travels. While there is a vibrant competition among domestic airlines that attract plenty of air passengers, most travels within states and inter-states are still done by private cars and trucks.

The American governments, recent ones and the current administration, in my assessment, are undertaking very unsustainable fiscal policies. With expenditures always outpacing revenues every year for two or three decades or more, non-stop, and the budget deficit of the federal government alone is on the trillion dollars per year since last year, there is only one inescapable implication: more taxes today and tomorrow, to pay those mountains of public debts that have been contracted by the US government. Note that most governments at the state, county, and city levels also have their own set of huge public debts too.

Then there is the expensive health care reform underway where the total fiscal cost range from US$850 billion to US$3 trillion over the next 10 years, based on both government and independent estimates. Not yet enacted too, but already passed in the lower House, is the energy and environment bill, a.k.a “carbon cap and trade” or “carbon tax and trade” bill that is projected to cost around US$300 billion per year, and this is on top of existing environmental taxes and regulations.

I reckon that with such huge fiscal obligations, from normal federal government deficit spending to upcoming health care reforms and carbon cap and trade bills, taxes and fees can only rise even higher. Woe unto the average American taxpayers!

But America has a wide land area, a resource that can attract and accommodate more investors and capitalists, more hard-working and entrepreneurial people. And these are the future generations of people who will pay off those huge public debts that have piled up for several decades and generations.

Since we live in a highly globalized and economically-interconnected world, there is no sense in “celebrating” the slow or stunted growth of some big economies because of the profligacies of their past political administrations. A big and dynamic economy somewhere is always good news for all other smaller economies elsewhere. The people of those big and dynamic economies are their (a) export markets, (b) employers of their underpaid workers, skilled or unskilled, at home, and (c) source of in-bound tourists and foreign investors. So a rich and dynamic America, a rich and dynamic China, Japan and India, a rich and dynamic Europe, are always good news for the poorer economies of Asia and other continents. The theory of “imperialism” by the rich countries that exploit poorer countries does not hold water anymore.

Economic growth and capitalist development can always create new spaces, new areas, for human development. Ever higher residential and office skyscrapers for instance, free up space for public parks and sports stadium. Development in land reclamation technology makes use of otherwise pesky soil erosion problem to further expand urban land area by thousands or millions of hectares.

Where there is capitalist dynamism and individual liberty, there is always room for individual, family and corporate freedom – in space, in speed and inter-state, inter-country economic connection.

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