Jobs, yes, but what kind? While Obama proposes to build highways (with some runways and railbeds thrown in), and the national GOP continues to say “no,” what are local politicians doing? Some crucial economic steps could be taken only by the feds, but is there anything to be accomplished meanwhile on the state or county levels?
One candidate who says yes is Jeff Golden, running for country commissioner in southern Oregon. His county (Jackson) has a population of a tad more than 200,000, plus the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Rogue River, mountain ranges. (Disclosure: I live there and, like many in the valley, know and support Golden.)
On his website the candidate has just posted what he calls his “local jobs agenda.” Detailed, starting with a chart, this document focuses on “clusters” poised, in his view, for exceptional growth. It’s routine to find “forestry,” long a leading industry in this area, but surprising to see “food and agriculture,” “energy conservation,” and “green construction.” According to a local economic consultancy, these three clusters could grow faster than any others in Jackson County, and could pay what are referred to as “family wages.”
Golden is proposing that county government not take over these areas, but rather assume the role of convening the players (the “stakeholders”) and thus helping to get things started, tailoring ordinances, buying local, bringing entrepreneurs together with investors.
Why these particular clusters?
According to the agenda, only 1-3% of the food eaten in the valley is grown here. As long as just-in-time sourcing from all over the globe continues to operate, no problem; but if for any reason localities had to assume more responsibility for feeding themselves, some of the 97-99% of food now trucked in would have to be replaced. The current situation is not food security; it is gross vulnerability.
Vulnerable to what? To a sharp rise in the price of oil, caused by the peak of global oil production, even without rising demand from Asia. Golden is not predicting a sharp rise, but his goal of growing perhaps 20% of food locally would help if a rise were to happen.
Analysts warning about peak oil (such as the Post Carbon Institute) were regarded as a fringe movement as recently as a few years ago, but since then the official international body charged with predicting production figures has been drastically revising its figures down, from the fantastic toward the present output. Even Lloyd’s of London now acknowledges peak oil, which does not mean the exhaustion of oil supplies; it refers to the maximum global production, after which the graph starts sloping inexorably downward, whether or not demand is rising.
The peak is crucial, because for about a century our civilization has been increasingly built on oil. (The model-T Ford, in 1908, is a convenient starting point.) Oil yields gas and other fuels for civilian cars, trucks, farm equipment, planes, ships, and railroads; for military uses; pesticides; plastics; and many other modern conveniences. When oil gets expensive, we tend to have a recession, which is not a salubrious atmosphere for investment in energy alternatives.
Which brings us to a second of Golden’s leading trio of economic clusters, “energy conservation.” If oil gets expensive, we’ll need to do everything we can with less of it. It will pay, for example, to arrange cooperative use of vehicles. To the extent that oil is used for heating, it will pay to have tight buildings that don’t leak heat into the atmosphere.
The third of Golden’s top trio of clusters is “green construction.” Here our society will not only retrofit existing buildings but rewrite codes to encourage energy-efficient new construction. Thanks to some pioneering architects and clients, Jackson County already has some green homes. How can we encourage more, and not only for rich clients? What about commercial space, the health industry, schools?
The final item on Golden’s list is “business incubation and financing.” This is less a cluster than a service to the specific areas. The metaphor suggests fragile chicks that need warmth and special food until they get stronger.
Contrary to ideologues who would deny government a role, many big strong industries got their start as projects started or subsidized by a government. Examples in the U.S. include railroads that received land, and the Internet. The latter grew out of something called ARPANET, which at first mainly connected scientists and universities. Golden wants to encourage local business in part by making sure the county buys as much as possible from it.
Of course, this plan for exceptional growth in promising clusters depends on a revival of the general economy. However, to the extent that peak oil will force us to grow more local food, conserve energy, and “build green,” jobs in these clusters need to be encouraged in any case.
What can county government do? If you navigate to the website of your county, you will probably find departments such as sheriff and D.A., courts, assessor (of property tax), health and human services, library, parks, roads, perhaps a fairground and an airport, perhaps an office supporting economic development.
According to Golden’s agenda, the county government, “with very limited budgetary resources,” can nonetheless have a big effect not by raising taxes and proposing bond issues, but by buying locally itself, by convening stakeholders in strategic clusters, and by encouraging local financial institutions and investors to support local business. (For other ideas, start by checking out the Ash Center and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.)
It is boilerplate for some Democrats to call for growth and jobs. As the midterm elections approach, the president is supporting more money for highways. What distinguishes Golden is the particular clusters he wants to encourage — not a revival of the usual, but support for businesses of the future, centered on local food, energy conservation, and green building.
Are any of your local candidates talking this way? If not, perhaps they need a group to remind them. If so, perhaps you can help.