Think of this as Volume 16, Number 45 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
The crisis is the War Against Oil, but it's a crisis that dare not speak its name.
Al Gore spoke its name, and he was buried for it. Buried by Bush's Supreme Court in 2000, then buried by ridicule after getting his Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth.”
This President has tried to approach things in a different way. Rather than address the crisis directly, he has sought to make the case instead for the role of government. He used government to address the financial panic, with modest success, and he used it to try and address health care inflation, although success there remains years away. With people impatient for change they could feel, he needed a break.
Sandy was the break he needed.
As a political bookend, Katrina set things in motion. Katrina changed the nation in profound ways, ways we didn't even notice at first. Katrina made us angry, it enraged us. The non-reaction of the Bush Administration became its unforgiveable sin – more than Iraq, more even than the financial panic. Katrina, and New Orleans, became a burning coal in every Democrat's belly. Never again, we promised ourselves. That fire burned hot in 2006, it burned hotter in 2008, it burns in my heart today.
It's best summarized here, in the U2-Green Day video “The Saints are Coming.” It portrays Katrina as an opportunity to bring our troops home from Iraq to save New Orleans, something that did not happen.
With Sandy, however, “The Saints” came. The National Guard was deployed to Hoboken, something that didn't happen for the Ninth Ward. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had his “come to Jesus” moment, and (pun alert) Muhammad came to the Mountain. The picture of President Obama and Gov. Christie, Romney's top surrogate, the keynoter of his convention, standing together and doing their jobs – a job Romney is on record opposing as a matter of policy – ends the campaign.
As this is written, five days before the election, it's all over but the counting. Pundits want to believe the question remains in doubt, but the President has dominated the early vote, and it's impossible to believe he'll lose the Election Day vote as overwhelmingly as he must for his present lead to be threatened. Romney's efforts to hide his remarks on FEMA, to pretend he supported the auto bailout, are damning to him, and to his party.
Americans are coming to a consensus, that government has an essential role in dealing with our problems, that something is badly wrong, that we all must pull together to create essential change, and that profit cannot be the only motivator.
All this – all we've seen the last eight years – has been nothing but fighting alligators. The real job is to drain the swamp, but we have been obsessed instead with problems that are smaller in the long run, that are mere symptoms and not the disease.
You may want to feel depressed about that, but what my ongoing study of American history over the last eight years has taught me is that this is always the case. Each of the great crises of American history have been about economics, about a new abundance trying to emerge from inside an enforced scarcity. But that is never how things were portrayed at the time. It's not even how they're portrayed now:
Take the new Spielberg film “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It takes as its text the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, which transformed the Civil War into a fight for human freedom.
Slavery was an obsolete economic model, even as the war approached. Machines were far more productive, and machines needed willing hands to work them, not enslaved hands. This was evident as far back as the 1840s. This was the subtext of the “John Henry” story, one of our great American fables, about a strong black man who drove rail spikes against a machine until it killed him. But the political system still guaranteed the continuance of this obsolete economy, it still yoked the nation to inefficiency.
Ending slavery let the Machine Age move forward unimpeded. It launched an era of abundance that extended into the 1890s, when the economic arrangements of that age broke down, and government was required to develop systems assuring the new national manufacturers reliable prices for inputs on which they could build the Automotive Age, and a single national market.
But, again, we've just passed another crisis, the one I've called the McKinley Crisis. All the struggles of a generation, from the Mugwumps to Woodrow Wilson, the issue of the Progressive Era, was aimed less at reining-in business than in liberating production.
But mass production requires mass consumption, and policies aimed solely at production can create an economic collapse unless they're matched by policies aimed at building demand.
It was fascism that became the swamp, not the Depression. The challenges of that time, the questions that were answered by the Greatest Generation, were about whether democracy could survive in a world requiring such mass orchestration, whether freedom could endure when government's help was needed on both the supply and demand sides of the economy.
We won that struggle, but manufacturing faced new limits. It enhanced productivity only arithmetically. The mass mechanization of America could take us only so far, and as we approached the limits of what mere machines could do, and pushed those limits through both of Lyndon Johnson's wars, the Cold War and the War on Poverty, a new economic crisis came.
That crisis, the Nixon-era crisis, was not answered by politics. It was answered by the microchip, and by intellectual property which could create an abundance of new value with ever-smaller relative inputs.
Again, the crisis was over the alligators, not the swamp. The war was over Vietnam, not Apollo. The men who created our age – men like Gordon Moore and David Packard – were Republicans almost to a man. So were Hollywood's business leaders.
Once their power was unleashed, by policies such as the “Nixon Shock,” abundance slowly returned. The Apple II and Star Wars created new values and a new American economy.
All of which led to the existential crisis of our own time.
The abundance of the Nixon Era naturally flowed upward, toward those few who were creating most of the value, to people who weren't really working, but just playing games with money. It was, it is, a crisis similar in many ways to that faced in the Progressive Era, 100 years ago.
Government is needed again to break through the artificial scarcity of commodities, to enlist science and engineering in a War Against Oil, to break down artificial scarcity and create a new abundance based on the fact that the Sun shines, the winds blow, the tides roll, the crops grow, and we live on a molten rock.
That's the swamp of our time. Replacing the carbon energy cycle destroying our planet with a more sustainable hydrogen energy cycle is the great task before us. We have the technology. We can rebuild an economy that's stronger, faster, more flexible, more resilient, more global, and more cooperative, one that can take on the real challenge before us, the fight to save this planet from the virus known as man.
This is the message of Sandy. It was also the message of Katrina. But only one side heard the Katrina message. Sandy was a message even Chris Christie could understand. And the response to that message wasn't in Mitt Romney's hands, it wasn't something private enterprise alone could deal with.
Now, Barack Obama can lead us in the great job before us, draining the swamp, winning the War Against Oil, saving the planet, and creating a new economic abundance for our children and our grandchildren.
The fifth great crisis in America's history is reaching its climax.