Next Conservatism 2: Great Renovations
Three historic challenges confront the United States today, meaning that we have three historic opportunities for market-based solutions that bring Americans together instead of cracking the country apart. Ideological Movement Conservatism can’t get these jobs done. Fact-driven Next Conservatism can.
1. Upgrading the national infrastructure
The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a Report Card on the state of the national infrastructure every four years. Scoring from A to F on the basis of capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation, their 2013 Report Card gave the nation grades such as these for the hardware we use every day: Energy D+; Schools D; Transit, D; Roads, D; Rail, C+, Ports, C, Aviation, D; Wastewater, D; Solid, Waste, B-; Levees, D-. It all seems a little abstract until you ask yourself whether the bridge you’re crossing got a C-.
This willful mediocrity has political roots. Movement Conservatives have a long history of resisting the very idea of a national infrastructure. Their current argument that the estimated $3.4 trillion through 2020 that we need to invest is too much only prolongs massive friction and waste that stack up costs to every American every day. The upside is, as improvements are made now, they don’t just restore the former state of the roads or water systems. New technology makes these assets networked, capable of learning and communicating with us, and raising them to a new level of value — a 2.0 version (or better) that leverages American intelligence and technologies, creates tens of thousands of long-term jobs in the making, and supports millions of then in its outcomes. That, by every literal definition, creates a more perfect Union.
Just as big a challenge is preparing for what‘s coming: trillions of dollars of the nation’s most valuable real estate is threatened by climate change. While media conservatives debate the causes, Boston, Miami, New York, New Orleans and Tampa, for starters, are already planning infrastructure projects to manage unprecedented sea levels. And it’s gravely wrong for anyone in America, indeed in the world, to assume that the damage is just a matter of geography, so leave it to the local people to cope. The 2001 tropical storm that flooded Houston wrecked research labs at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 wiped out an estimated $1 billion in clinical, research and academic facilities at New York University. Losses like those aren’t local.
2. Bringing the performance of buildings, houses, and transportation into the 21st century
By one estimate (from Goldman Sachs) there are about 135 million houses in the United States, including just over 17 million vacancies. Homeownership is the nation’s traditional foundation of wealth building, so it’s a crisis and an opportunity that so many millions of these buildings are, by current technical standards, more like 19th century shelters than they are like 21st century capital investments. Someone buying a $500 laptop gets better information on how it operates than they get when they’re investing their future in a $500,000 house. Typical listings describe the house’s square footage, bedrooms, baths, appliances and such. They don’t discuss its operating history, the insulation efficiency of the foundation or the roof, and how much energy it can create to cover its own needs. They don’t say how it performs in seasons of drought or in long winters. They don’t say how many petabytes of memory the house’s CPU has, or the connectivity of every system in it to the owner’s mobile devices. How many homeowners know where their most important investment lands on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index, the industry standard for measuring home’s energy efficiency? How many Homeowners’ Associations require making it known? The houses don’t know. The owners don’t know.
This is Next Conservatism emerging: buyers are learning.
Unprecedented options for retrofitting houses with broadband and innovative energy technologies are lifting even older properties from net negative energy users into net positive energy generators that do what they’re bought to do: build wealth even through market stresses and national downturns. Homeowners in every state are seizing the opportunity to remake houses from millstones into money machines. With those changing expectations, homeowners are changing the roles they play as owners. They’re capable of being their own facility managers, using simple interfaces on a Smartphone to read and calibrate their investment’s energy performance and security, operating their house instead of just occupying it, learning how to optimize it as a wealth-builder instead of just taking on a mortgage and hoping for the market to hold up.
Cars are almost always part of that system. They’ve always been wasting assets that started losing value from the first moment of ownership. Now they’re being engineered to use energy gathered by the owner’s roof, stored in household batteries, and transferred to the car. The obvious benefits to anyone who owns a synergistic house/car facility like this are low-cost energy and better financial independence. It also offers revitalization to whole communities like those in California and Nevada that bloomed and died during the housing bubble and $4 gas prices. Thousands of homes in California Riverside County remain bank-owned, for example, in a place that averages 277 sunny days per year. Those houses are sitting under a steady rain of money, if they can collect it.
The technology for distributed solar is racing ahead. The worst obstructions now come from state governments protecting legacy industries and business models at the direct expense of their own constituents who want to start using solar. Many such states are squarely in the Sunbelt: Solar OPEC. (“Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia account for more than 35 percent of the total rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) technical potential in the contiguous United States, but only six percent of total installed distributed solar capacity, according to a March 2016 report released by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and data provided by the U.S. Energy Information Agency” http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/energy/throwing_shade.html).
It’s ironic that the “castle laws” being adopted to protect self-defense rights might be cited in those states such as Texas and Florida where the legislatures have promoted firearms ownership as an absolute right, but have ignored or resisted the homeowners seeking to make use of their own sunshine. If someone has the right to defend the inside of his castle, does he not have the right to the energy that falls on his roof?
3. Making ourselves healthier, renewing personal social mobility, and wealth-building
The most urgent renovation is the one we need to make on ourselves.
For our bodies:
The American Diabetes Association estimates that almost 30 million Americans have diabetes, and that another 86 million are prediabetic. It will only rise as a new generation of poorly nourished kids becomes symptomatic. (http://www.diabetes.org/newsroom/press-releases/2014/american-diabetes-association-announces-2015-legislative-priorities) Obesity affects a third of American adults. More than two-thirds of us are overweight (http://stateofobesity.org/healthcare-costs-obesity/). A third of our teenagers are overweight or obese. (http://stateofobesity.org/rates/) One in four deaths comes from heart disease. (http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_heart_disease.htm)
We don’t all live the lifestyles that lead to or exacerbate these problems, but we all pay for them. Diabetes costs the nation almost $250 billion per year. Coronary heart disease alone costs the United States over $100 billion. Obesity is one of the biggest drivers of preventable chronic diseases and healthcare costs in the United States. Currently, estimates for these costs range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion per year. Ours isn’t the first civilization to suffer from epidemics, but surely we are the first to suffer them by choice with the dollar costs and better alternatives in front of us. The good news is, technology offers users a better chance than ever to turn all this around, decision by decision and case by case
For our marketable skills:
While we lament the loss of American manufacturing jobs, millions of them might go unfilled because we don’t have the skilled workers to take them. Between retirements in the workforce and growth in the economy, there will be 2.7 million jobs to fill. The Manufacturing Institute cites “loss of embedded knowledge due to movement of experienced workers, a negative image of the manufacturing industry among younger generations, lack of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills among workers, and a gradual decline of technical education programs in public high schools.” (http://www.themanufacturinginstitute.org/~/media/827DBC76533942679A15EF7067A704CD.ashx)
For our personal finances:
The New York Federal Reserve puts household debt at $12.07 trillion, mortgage originations at $502 billion, and auto loans at $1.05 trillion. Student loans are record of $1.2 trillion. The delinquency rate on student debt hit 11.6 percent. These are Fall 2015 numbers, so they’re all higher now. (http://www.cnbc.com/2015/11/19/new-york-fed-household-debt-at-highest-level-since-2010.html)
These numbers seem incomprehensibly abstract, and the problems all seem disconnected until an American with a new mortgage, a seemingly endless student loan, and a car with $5000 left in payments is driving to an uncertain job and hits a pothole in the street that his city has neglected for six months requiring a $1000 front end alignment and ten sessions at a chiropractor. That’s the sort of stress that stacks up into blood pressure problems and a drink too many that evening; in worst-case scenarios, it means a job loss, a long-term health problem, marital troubles, and despair. The real America we live in together interknits all these challenges. Some of us are lucky enough that they pass us by. Others aren’t. But the effects add up, and we all pay the bill.
One decision and one improvement at a time turns this tide. An old idea reemerges: proficient citizenship. The essence of the American Dream has always been that hard work and integrity make anyone a success here. With rapidly emerging technology for goal-setting and measurement — the Internet of Things — a Conservative acting on her own initiative, in her own interests, can practice Conservatism and make her life better quickly, without sacrificing anything. It will only get easier and more advantageous for people to follow the examples around them.
These decisions don’t need to be imposed if people to make them voluntarily. It’s getting simpler to take care of yourself, and the scoreboards are easier to read than ever. Those who conserve themselves will benefit. Decision by decision, life by life, everyone who practices fact-based improvement will be making a more concrete statement than the ideologues make about what Conservatism is and how it’s done. Imagine the effect on all three renovation opportunities if five million Next Conservatives start this week.
Next Conservatism 3: Down to Bedrock is at https://medium.com/@David_Clow/next-conservatism-3-down-to-bedrock-c7f8d6d26a21