Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sloop - what an old boat has to do with economic policy

With regard to the Economy, and its current state:

I recently published a book about the restoration of an old sailboat built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1938. (The book (Sloop) was brought out in June, 2008 by Simon and Schuster).

I bring this up because one of the policies, written in stone, that John B. Herreshoff and his brother Nat (Nathanael G.) Herreshoff followed as businessmen was: Never buy anything that couldn't be purchased with cash on hand. They didn't extend themselves to creditors, ever, and so their company lasted and flourished as long as they did, and longer.

They contracted with millionaires like J.P. Morgan, and with the U.S. Navy, and with normal people too, and they didn't ever go out on a limb. They played hardball in the major leagues, as it were, and they always played within themselves, understood their limits, and insisted on fiscal discipline. And they are in the Hall of Fame, when it comes to building boats.

This sort of reasoned behavior was common practice at one time - never to over-extend oneself. Perhaps it was common practice because those who practiced it had not yet forgotten the actual feeling (first had when they were children) of being too far out on a literal tree limb. It is a bad feeling, when one climbs a tree with too much enthusiasm, and finds oneself swaying on a too-thin limb. A feeling one hopes is not punctuated by a crack! and a thump!

I make light, yet I knew a man who grew up in a rural community in Scotland, and fell out of a tree as a boy. He broke his arm badly, a compound fracture, and because his family lived so far from medical facilities, he lost the arm. It had to be amputated. This was very sad for him, yet he grew up to be a great strong man, with a wonderful family, a professor of geology. It turned out that he missed his arm, but that he forged on.

In these shaky economic times, I wonder why it is that the Fed. (and Mr. Bush, and Mr. Paulson, and Mr. Bernanke) feel it is such a priority to encourage the continued behavior of going too far out on a limb. Americans, it seems to me, have become too used to being able to borrow money at unrealistic interest rates in order to have things (like new cars and gazebos) which, sadly, many can't really afford.

Rather than shoring up investment banks that have failed through poor practice, and encouraging our fellow Americans to live beyond their means, we ought to be encouraging people to think differently about how to live. This may cause the economy to contract in the short term, and cause some businesses that can't survive without government subsidies to disappear. But this is what adults would do.

Aren't we supposed to be about encouraging people to live within their means, and encouraging businesses that improve people's lives in tangible ways, and so are in demand and sustainable by a real economy? In the beginnings of this nation, people, by and large, produced useful products, and food, and were paid for that.

Now, one (as a broker) can trade bundles of high interest loan futures, back and forth, and make a pile of cash, at least until someone (an investor, perhaps) says, "Hey, wait a minute, I want to know what's in this bundle that I've bought, and which has been bought and sold many times before."

When it's found out that the commodity in question is not corn or whale oil or lumber or stone, but just a concept of something with no inherent value, that this is the kind of commodity upon which we've built our economic temple, then we're in real trouble. We're not way out on a real limb. We're too far out on the limb of a tree that doesn't even exist.

My actual old boat still sails, well-built in a time when that was more prevalent in this country, and we've got to get back to that. And away from thinking that a new car, or a new anything, is going to be what makes us happy. We've got to start living like adults. Like mature, weathered, mortal, sagacious adults, who understand that happiness comes from noticing the riches already inherent in our surroundings, in the beauty of things as we find them, rather than in the shine of a new car's paint.

If we can transform our notion of richness, and of wealth, and begin again to include community, personal discovery, family, friends, and experience in that equation, rather than what predominates at the top of the consciousness of this nation - aquisition of new stuff - then we've got a chance to turn this thing around.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A moment of silence in memory.
Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008

Today, according to the New York Times, marks a new high in annual deaths for American service men and women in Afghanistan: 112 Americans have been killed in that country this year thus far, more than in any other year of the "War on Terror" that we are waging.
Admiral Mike Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Wednesday (as recounted in an AP story by Robert Burns today) as he addressed the House Armed Services Committee, that "Frankly, we are running out of time" in Afghanistan, and that "We cannot kill our way to victory" there. This came one day after Mr. Bush announced yesterday that one Marine battalion and one Army brigade would be shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan this fall. Adm. Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who joined him in testifying, both stressed that relying on military force to win in Afghanistan was short-sighted, and said that what is needed is better Afghan government, a more diverse economy (shifted away from a reliance on poppy farming), more cooperation with Pakistan, and more non-military U.S. aid.
What is plain to me (and I hasten to add that I echo these two) is that our strategy in Afghanistan needs to change. I have long wondered, given the clear effects of the Marshall Plan in post-WW II Western Europe, why we continue to rely principally on our military power to solve what is at least as much an economic and sociologic problem on the ground in Afghanistan. This is a nation that for many years, until the 1970s, was a peaceful and stable nation. The Taliban has risen because of a lack of sources of strength available to the people there - it has arisen in a vacuum, so to speak, where economic and educational possibilities are practically nil after nearly forty years of war, first with the Russians, and now among the forces that seek to hold sway over a ravaged nation. If we give the people of Afghanistan evidence that their long lack of possibility is over, by rebuilding economic and educational infrastructure in their nation, the Taliban will inevitably fade. This ought to be our main effort.
Easy for me to say, yet there it is.
And I must say it is refreshing to hear two such estimable men speaking what has, to me, the ring of truth.

Monday, September 8, 2008

What it's all about.

This will be an ongoing dialogue about place, ethics, and culture. Matters arising will include energy, witness, clarity of sight, profit, value, economy, justice, boats, trout, cranberries, granite, glacial till, navigation, story, character, bronze fastenings, and heart. Among other things.

What does this all mean? Well, today I am reflecting on the fact that the bilge pump in my fifteen foot-long, seventy year-old, wooden sailboat can be easily and entirely powered by a five-watt solar cell, charging a 75 amp-hour deep cell marine battery. The solar cell I speak of is about 18 inches by 18 inches square. About the size of a small pizza. In reality, it could, by trickling energy steadily into such a battery 15 hours a day, power 5 or 10 such pumps (which run only occasionally).

By extension, this means that other, much larger appliances (like refrigerators) can be powered by more solar cells, charging one or several deep-cycle batteries (with an inverter on the back end to change the current from direct to alternating).

With a few twenty-year-old solar cells totalling in area about the size of a sheet of plywood (4 feet by 8 feet), one can power a refrigerator and deep freezer, all winter long, in New England, with the solar cells merely slanted toward the south at 45 degrees from vertical and fixed in that position. I know this from experience, as we did this on Penikese Island. Multiply this array by 2, and the appliances one can run become legion. Divide this array in half, and one can still easily operate laptops, radios, small appliances and occasional power tools. Increase such an array by four or six, and the need for an external supply of electricity becomes doubtful.

But, for some reason, there is still a feeling among many that to burn fossil fuel to power our appliances or cars is still preferable, or is somehow better, or is the only option.

What we've got to do is make solar energy as cool as baseball, as cool as driving a Corvette. Right now it's still not seen as cool, as hip, as true blue, as what real kick-ass Americans do. And that's bunk. Because I do it. I do solar.

Powering up a car with solar is cooler than driving a Corvette, every day of the week. And just think - with a decent array of solar cells, some extra batteries in the trunk of your hybrid bomber, and a few more big extra batteries in the shed, you could just pull your car up to the plug at the end of your own private bank of batteries, plug that baby in, and be good to go, with a full tank of stored sun every morning, with no need to visit the filling station again. Ever.

Yes, you'll need to spend a couple grand on batteries. And maybe several grand on solar cells. But in a time when I am spending seventy-five dollars a week on gas, so, close to four grand a year on gas, there's no question that such a deal could pay for itself fast.

In addition, with an economy as large as ours in the USA, we can produce and consume enough solar cells and batteries and inverters domestically to make everyone a buck - it'll create jobs, cut costs, and make us feel as cool as driving a Corvette does. Cooler, even, when we come up with a bad-ass, rubber-burning, sun-powered son-of-a-bitchin' new American sportscar that will outrun anything on the road now.