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Living in the Past

Message David Cox

There once was a time in America when change was welcomed, a time long ago when new ideas were embraced. That was the age of liberalism, when the Sewer Socialists reigned in Milwaukee, making radical decisions such as: having clean water to drink is a birthright. Also, the forty-hour week, the living wage, labor unions, safety standards that were not just for the employees, but for the customers, as well.

When Congress passed the first food safety regulations in 1906, the industrialists resented this government intrusion into what they considered their business alone. The newspapers were full of editorials denouncing the legislation. But one industrialist took a different path; he broke from his brethren. Rather than denouncing the new regulations, Henry John Heinz praised them and complained that they didn’t go far enough and announced his hope that someday the government standards would equal his own standards.

Rather than fight change, he led the fight for change. Henry J. Heinz introduced the factory tour. He believed that satisfied workers made better products, and he sold those products to the world and made his fortune while paying decent wages, and even offering free daycare for his employees. He also held band concerts in the lunchroom of the factory.

This was an era of innovation, electricity, radio, and the automobile. A young Igor Sikorsky studied on how to build a helicopter, a ridiculous notion of a vehicle that would never work. Bill Harley began working in Milwaukee with Arthur Davidson building motorcycles, oblivious to the fact that the Indian Motorcycle Company was already in production and was much better capitalized. The Harley Davidson Company was dedicated, however, to change. Bill Harley didn’t invent the V-twin; he just made it better. The Harley’s reputation for power and durability made it the most exported motorcycle in the world in its time, and in ten years the Indian Motorcycle Company was left in the dust.

This list could go on forever, the innovators, the modernists who believed that anything could be improved. After the rise of that generation, there began a backlash. Henry Ford refused, despite pleas from his board of directors and his family, to build a new automobile. Only after Chevrolet matched Ford’s sales did he begin to take notice. Meanwhile, Billy Durant was ousted by the board of directors of GM for his wild spending on outlandish schemes.

Sure, he had been correct about the electric starter and his purchase of other car companies had reduced the overall cost of production. Incorporating the companies under the name General Motors, Durant pushed for pipe dreams like an automatic transmission and doing away with the engine magneto. Durant’s Chevrolet came with electric starter, running lights and was available in a variety of colors, in contrast to Ford’s only color, black.

Ford led the way for the reactionaries, and change was fought tooth and nail. GM removed Durant twice until he was a broken man. During World War II, the American aviation industry was given access to British jet engine technology and their response was: Thanks, but no thanks. Only after the war, when the defense department took captured German jet technology to the American aviation industry saying, “We want these!” did they accept the new technology. You see, new technology is expensive and it might not work just right. Better to stick with the old tried and true, the Model T and the DC-3.

After World War II, Preston Tucker proposed a new vision for the post-war, modern automobile. It featured a rear engine, with seat belts and safety glass, and pop-out windshields. Detroit’s response was to use their congressional influence to crush Tucker like a bug. Tucker’s emphasis on safety made the big three automakers' cars look unsafe, which they were. The big three automakers fought against seat belts for twenty years; they fought against airbags for twenty years. Like Heinz and Tucker, the Swedish automaker, Volvo, believed that fortunes could be made and market share grabbed buy selling the safety of their product.

American industry was at its zenith for the next twenty years. Television was introduced by the same radio networks that had ruled the air waves for decades. The DuMont network, the world's first commercial TV network, was forced out just as Tucker had been forced out. GM promoted their line of transit buses by buying up stock in electric trolley lines and then forcing them out of business, leaving municipalities with no other option but to buy buses.

The last era of American technological development was the space program, begun as a means of competing with the Soviets for national pride. The government funding of unproven technology has changed every aspect of our lives today. It fueled American growth and American military power with satellite navigation, smart bombs, and dumb leaders. The planned replacement for the space shuttle will be a new generation of Apollo spacecraft. Yeah, lets go back to the way we used to do it with the model T and the DC–3.

The decline in the American auto industry in the 60s and 70s is but a symptom of that belief. GM tried to use the transmission out of the subcompact Vega in its full-sized Cadillac, resulting in a 50% failure rate. Who was to blame for this fiasco? Why, the lazy, overpaid autoworker, of course. But GM wasn’t finished; they tried to convert the Oldsmobile 350 rocket V-8 engine to a diesel engine. So bad was the prognosis for this program that the senior engineer on the project quit rather than have his name associated with this dog. Then, just for fun, the GM executives mated the disastrous diesel to the Vega transmission; damn those auto workers!

In 1996, GM introduced the EV1, the first purpose-built electric cars, taking advantage of government subsidies. The cars received great reviews and had the unintended consequences of encouraging other states to pass similar legislation to California’s. GM decided investing in electric cars wasn’t the answer; the money would be better spent suing the state of California to roll back their mandate. GM had only leased the cars and never sold them, and in 1997, as the leases expired, GM retook possession of the cars and crushed them. A few examples were sent to museums and universities, but only after they had been disabled.

New technology causes problems and should be avoided. GM’s E85 ethanol program is old technology, not new. Their SUV hybrid model proves that they just don’t get it. Even one of their fuel cell programs is based on cranking gasoline for better mileage, rather than eliminating it.

That radical, that most-hated man to hold the White House since Lincoln, James Earl Carter, proposed projects to break America's energy dependence on oil. One of these programs was the Solar Energy Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert. This system of parabolic mirrors focused on a salt solution, which is then heated to become steam and turns a turbine, generating clean energy. Your tax dollars at work. However, since the election of Ronald Reagan, the focus on clean energy has been forgotten; instead the emphasis is on using coal. You remember coal, just like grandpa used in the days of his Model T and DC-3.

Even today the administration promotes a return to nuclear power as the answer to our energy needs, good, old, clean plutonium. Your President, George W. Bush, wants to cut the growth of greenhouse gases in half by 2025. But the administration lives in the past, trying to solve problems with yesterday’s solutions, which in turn just causes more problems. Your tax dollars were not misspent, they just fell on deaf ears in this country. The Mojave plants could produce up to 354 MW of electricity, compared with the world's largest photovoltaic plant, which can produce only 20 MW.

Today a German consortium is assembling plans to harvest the sun's energy in Mediterranean North Africa. "We don't have an energy problem," says Hans Müller-Steinhagen, of the German Aerospace Center. "We have an energy conversion and distribution problem." The program, named Desertec, plans to harvest electricity, safely, cleanly, without coal or plutonium, without a dangerous reactor or waste storage facilities. Yes, Mr. And Mrs. America, your tax dollars were well put to work by that evil, supervillain Carter. Providing safe, clean energy for Europe while our President insists that by drilling in the Arctic we can wring a few more years out of a technology that is slowly killing us.

The estimated cost is 400 to 650 billion Euros, between now and 2050, and much of the cost is for the transmission lines to transport the energy to Europe from North Africa. Sunlight captured over a 510,000 square meter area produces roughly enough electricity to meet the demands of 200,000 people, forever. The only cost is maintenance, with the by-product of extra capacity that can be used by host countries for desalination of precious drinking water. A solar plant the size of Austria would generate enough electricity to satisfy world’s demands.

In his studies, Müller-Steinhagen has scrutinized the energy situation in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from the point of view of the post-oil era. Out of all the alternative energy sources, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: "No energy source even comes close to achieving the same massive energy density as sunshine." Energy that can be harnessed, even at night: excess heat produced during the day can be stored for several hours in tanks of molten salt. This way the turbines can produce electricity even when the sun is not shining.

The US could achieve energy self-sufficiency through solar thermal power plants in the south and west. But the lack of courage and the fear of change, along with the energy stranglehold by vested interests and their congressional lobbies, prevent it. Just recently, scientists writing in the respected magazine, "Scientific American," unveiled a "Solar Grand Plan" for the US. So many of America’s problems can be traced back to doing what’s best for campaign contributors, rather than the American people.

Around the world the solar energy business soars, while America lags behind, and the politicians scratch their heads, wondering, Now how can we get the economy moving? Why is it that we only lead the world in debt and weaponry?
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I was born and raised in Chicago in a liberal Democratic home my Grandfather was a labor union organizer my Father a Democratic district committeeman my Mother was an election judge. My earliest memories were of passing out Kennedy yard signs from (more...)
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