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How long can we keep this going?

Dec. 13, 2011
Who predicted that the U.S. government would be the obstacle to economic growth?
Robert E. Brooks

This year is running down to its final moments as though we’re watching the last 20 minutes of a disaster movie. The clock is ticking, the bomb hasn’t been located yet, and crowds are running in every direction. Information is flying and it’s impossible to be sure that anyone understands all that we need to know to make everything work out safely.

If you feel this December is more stressful than past years, you’re not alone in that perception. Along with the crush of deadlines that happen every year as we try to finish up our necessary work and wring a bit of relief from the real and contrived necessities of our holiday schedules, now we face the stress of currency collapses and threatening mobs, and these in addition to the pervasive anxiety of inflation and static unemployment. It’s almost normal to think that an alarm is about to sound at any moment.

The fact that we face crises of all different proportions would have seemed preposterous five or six years ago. We worried about terrorist attacks, of course, but it was possible to be confident about our own affairs. Now, everyone carries the stress of impending doom.

The basis of this anxiety is four-year long economic crisis rooted in excess debt, high unemployment, and financial instability. In fact, the solution is simple: economic expansion. If it were possible for employers to strategize a path to expanded revenues, surely more of them would do so. If they did, then more people would have better incomes, and more consumers would spend more freely. More businesses would undertake more initiatives to take advantage of that consumer confidence, and would have the means to employ even more people.

Some companies do have expansion plans: Boeing Corp. built a new factory to build its 787 jets, and though that plan angered the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers the company was set to employ more than 1,000 new technicians to build the planes. The union, however, persuaded the National Labor Relations Board to block the opening of the plant for several months — until the union won a critical concession from Boeing to build still another new plant at a site the IAM preferred. At that point, the government agency dropped its case against Boeing.

Another company considering expansion is TransCanada Corp., which operates an extensive crude-oil pipeline network. It aims to extend its Keystone Pipeline System with a new line that will link Alberta’s oil sands with refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast states, and distribution networks across the Central U.S. The financial implications of this proposal are vast, and not related only to the construction costs but to the long-term benefits of greater energy supplies near-at-hand for hundreds of millions of people in North America.

But, this growth opportunity is held up now, too, for a thicket of reasons too obvious to unravel: as with Big Labor leaning on the NLRB, environmental interests engaged federal officials to stall the pipeline. The waiting, and the anxiety, continue.

In time, the pipeline will be built. The need for energy is too great, the logic of the proposal is too sound, and the arguments presented against it are too insubstantial to bear up forever. What’s troubling is that amid a malingering financial crisis, two obvious opportunities to relieve the stress have found the federal government opposing the growth opportunities.

As the global economy emerged and expanded over the past decade, there were many who criticized the development and warned about the threat this new market presented to individual security, prosperity, and autonomy. I don’t recall anyone forecasting that the federal government would be the agent of that threat, blocking growth, instilling uncertainty, and impeding prosperity. It’s behaving like any threatened institution: stalling, misdirecting, trying any option to avoid acknowledging it has no alternatives of its own — stressing out about its own viability.