Observations: Let’s not race to mediocrity

Published on: March 8, 2011

By Mitch Traphagen

On a beautiful spring day in 1975, Reuben Svingen stood in his classroom at Worthington Junior High School, held up a silver coin and said, “There is enough energy in this nickel to power Chicago for a year.”

I doubt many of my classmates in that science class remember it, but that statement stuck with me. It was the height of a fuel crisis and a lingering recession and Mr. Svingen, one of the greatest teachers I was ever blessed to have, was shining an optimistic light on the ills of the nation. Something as simple as a nickel could change the world and all we had to do was tap that energy. Thirty-six years later, we still haven’t managed to do that, but the potential remains.

There is a saying that you can’t spend your way to prosperity. That is not always true because for the most part, you can’t become prosperous by not spending. Indeed, another saying is that it takes money to make money.

Most states and cities across America are facing unprecedented budget crises. Austerity is the new mantra. All across the nation, politicians are telling us that we can’t afford to fund this or that program and we can’t afford to invest in this or that project. But somewhere lines have to be drawn because it seems we are approaching the point of cutting off our nose to spite our face. Ironically, there are times when we simply can’t afford austerity.

In Florida, there has been legislation to reduce the number of weeks of unemployment compensation. For many of us fortunate to have a job, that sounds great — make the freeloaders go out and get jobs!  We shouldn’t be responsible for those who don’t want to work! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, unless, of course, you believe in a socialist system.

In our capitalist system, it doesn’t work that way because there aren’t enough jobs for everyone. There can’t be. Those of us who are employed depend entirely on a certain percentage of unemployment in order to keep inflation in check. At least four to five percent of our fellow Americans must be out of work at any given time in order to prevent a situation in which employers have to bid up the salaries of available workers. From fast food restaurants to the biggest financial companies, our economy depends on an always-available pool of labor. If that pool shrinks too much, companies need to increase salaries to “outbid” their competitors for labor. Once salaries start going up, then prices start going up to pay for it and thus begins the vicious circle that leads to inflation — and an economy that begins to bog down in a hurry.

Florida’s 12 percent unemployment rate is well above the ideal rate of four or five percent but defining the line is a tricky business. It is almost certain there are those who abuse the system for unemployment benefits, but that doesn’t provide justification for not investing in a necessary system. I don’t know how many weeks the unemployed should be provided with a safety net, but I do know the net needs to remain intact.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has made headlines for declining $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. The federal government says it will usher in a new and more sustainable future for transportation in Florida and will create badly needed jobs. The governor said he believes the state’s taxpayers will be stuck with a big bill for what could be a train to nowhere. I don’t know if high speed rail would be successful in Florida. I know that I would use it for no other reason than that the I-4 is, more often than not, a nightmare. I do believe, however, that you have to start somewhere on any large-scale project. Florida is a state with 18 million people and 82 million annual visitors. The process of continually adding lanes to our freeways certainly doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution. With gas prices rising and no relief in sight, it may ultimately prove to be not much of a solution at all.

Despite a campaign suggestion to let the process go out to private vendors for bid, the governor instead just shut it down. It seems that for something so large, letting the process run its course to get all of the facts before making a decision would have been warranted. And since the jury is still out, perhaps the governor is doing just that.

But even ignoring high speed rail, one thing is clear:  to remain stagnant with the excuse that “we’re broke” will not lead to good things for either Florida or the nation. With an increasingly competitive global climate, maintaining the status quo will simply ensure that we lose our standing as a world leader. Standing still will ensure that other nations will leave us behind.

This brings us back to Rueben Svingen and his nickel. As he so wisely pointed out, the solutions to our problems are out there waiting for discovery. The problems we face, however, are beyond the capabilities of any one individual, big investments are needed to solve big problems.

Even if you don’t care whether or not America remains a world leader, there is more to it.  I think a lot of us believe Florida is worth investing in. Most people believe America is worth investing in. Yes, times are hard and the nation is facing incomprehensibly large budget deficits, but there are still so many reasons for optimism. We need to find the man, woman, or organization that will figure out a way to power Chicago for a year from a mere nickel—or whatever next big thing lies out there for discovery. If you believe in the future of this great state and nation, investing in its infrastructure through research and development isn’t wasting money we don’t have. Instead, this investment will pay off for us—and future generations. 
This is not the time to give up and accept the status quo. This should not be a race to mediocrity. More than ever, we need to work together towards big solutions to the big problems.

And then, we will need to invest in those solutions. A nickel is cheap but figuring out a way to tap the energy within it is going to take some major funding. We need to have the backbone and, more importantly, the faith in ourselves, to make it a reality despite the politics, rancor and shouting. We need to have the faith and backbone to invest in Florida. But that, of course, doesn’t mean throwing piles of money at any ol’ project that comes along. Perhaps the governor is right about high-speed rail. But hopefully, any decision he makes will be based on facts rather than political expediency.

The opinions expressed by the writer are his own and not necessarily those of The Observer News and its employees.