Tag Archives: corporation

Can America Still Bring Good Things to Life?

When announcing the appointment of General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness today, President Obama vowed to put “our economy into overdrive.” He meant what everybody took him to mean: we are now going to get things really going, shift America into high gear, pull out all the stops, discover our inner Edison, “build stuff and invent stuff,” and export it to the world.

But the word “overdrive” is probably not the word the President should have chosen. Or at least it commits him to positions he isn’t going to take – positions I wish he would take.

Indulge me for a moment. Overdrive is not just high gear. Overdrive also means better fuel economy. When you put your car into overdrive you get the best mileage per gallon, because the overdrive mechanism allows “cars to drive at freeway speed while the engine speed stays nice and slow.” Or, as the entry on Wikipedia puts it, overdrive “allows an automobile to cruise at sustained speed with reduced engine speed, leading to better fuel consumption, lower noise and lower wear.”

At the very heart of the President’s metaphor, then, are two ideas: one, economy, a more efficient or economical use of resources (or fuel) and two, sustainability, maintaining a constant speed without causing wear and tear. Right now, we are desperately in need of both: new ways of conserving the resources we have and a more sustainable way forward than the cycle of boom and bust, or dangerous exuberance followed by social collapse.

Those ideas were not on display today in Schenectady. There was some talk about clean energy – a business GE is in, and where, not surprisingly, Immelt thinks a “partnership” between the private and public sector is “essential.” But the main focus was on U.S. manufacturing and U.S. exports, which the President wants to double over the next five years. “For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world,” said the President. So we need to innovate and invent new “stuff,” or bring good things to life, as the people at GE used to say. “Inventors and dreamers and builders and creators,” we need to expand our manufacturing base and bring American products to the global marketplace.

Reading these remarks, I can almost hear the old General Electric jingle. “We still have that spirit of innovation,” Immelt said. “America is still home to the most creative and innovative businesses in the world,” said the President. We are “still” innovative, both leaders took care to say — almost as if we no longer believe it or doubt it’s true. We’ve still got it. Our force is not spent.

It’s great to be reassured of our continued prowess. There are, however, lots of unexamined assumptions at work here, and chief among these is one I’ve discussed in earlier posts: namely, the assumption that “innovation” is the surest path to “growth,” and that growth – even unsustainable growth – is good in and of itself.

Sustainability doesn’t really enter into this conversation – partly because, I suppose, it really isn’t a conversation. It’s all bluster and boosterism.

Nor would anyone at these events, the President least of all, take a step back and ask whether, while we are doubling our exports, we should also take some steps toward greater self-sufficiency. Doing that, especially when it comes to energy — and energy consumption — would leave us less exposed.

I’m not even convinced doubling our exports or even saying we are going to double our exports is the right thing — for the dollar, for trade agreements we have in place, for the very focus of American industry and innovation. For his part, Immelt has no doubts:

“It’s the right aspiration,” Immelt said of the president’s goal of doubling American exports to more than $2 trillion in five years, during a Nov. 6 interview in Mumbai, where he joined Obama for a meeting with business leaders. “We’ve done it in the last five years as a company.”

Maybe in the long run, or at least in five year’s time, what’s good for General Electric will turn out to be good for the republic. How could it be otherwise?

The grid in my garden

When I moved house at the end of August, I decided to forgo the land line and rely entirely on wireless for my telephone service.

Even the most basic land package from Verizon seems overpriced, the legacy of a bygone era when telephone customers didn’t have many options. Besides, I already do most of my telephone work on my blackberry; the signal in the new place is strong; and I use cable for my internet connection (because it’s faster than DSL, not because I like the cable companies any more than I like Verizon).

Verizon’s wires still run through the place, previous residents and tenants over the past half century having installed a telephone in nearly every room. I’ve traced the wires from their origin on a pole just on the other side of the fence at the far end of our garden. The wires run the length of the garden, through the branches of trees, winding together in some places with creeping vines, weighed down in others by the heavy summer growth. They reach the house at a central hub or switch box, at which point they creep up and across the brick walls, where they find entry, through the brick and into the house. Once inside, the lines follow the trim and molding, angle to mimic a corner, and master the contours of every room’s interior, until they reach a jack.

The lines are held in place with staples. I have already spent some time removing these staples and pulling telephone wires out from the walls, cutting them close to the little holes where they emerge, and generally trying to rid the place of them. (I’ll need to do the same with all the television cables running into the house, with the exception of the one carrying my internet connection.)

We’ve gotten so accustomed to having all these lines and cables and cords creep through our homes that we no longer realize just how intrusive all this old wire technology is. The wires are unsightly. They ruin the molding and get in the way of painting. And now they’re dead: they no longer carry a signal or a voice. In certain moods I see them as reminders of absence, of lost connections, of loss.

I get a certain satisfaction from removing the wires inside the house, but now I’m wondering what it would take to get Verizon to clean up its equipment, take down the line that runs to the house from the pole in the back of the garden, pull down the lines that run up the back of the house, remove the switch box, and get all its gear off the property.

So far as I have been able to determine, Verizon’s ownership of the telephone wires is not really in question, even though regulatory changes from the 1960s through the 1990s have required the telephone companies to “behave neutrally” and to allow other service providers (like ISPs) to access their wires. Yet it also appears that the law of trespass is not entirely settled when it comes to telephone lines.

Airplanes and telephone lines once tested the law of trespass; they required exceptions and accommodations. But things change. A previous property owner allowed Verizon to string lines across and above my property. What if I now deem them a nuisance? And imagine what might happen to those easements and allowances if hundreds or thousands or even millions of property owners were to ask the telephone companies to take down their lines.

Most people probably consider the lines and cables and wires on their property none of their concern. In exchange for services, we’ve allowed the phone and power and cable companies to encroach and build on our property; and we’ve grown used to seeing the stuff everywhere we go.

That is not likely to change. New technologies (like fiber optic) and bundled services will most likely allow the phone companies to convert and upgrade rather than tear down the infrastructure they have in place. But I’m not interested. I want the grid out of my garden.