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American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

“So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.  What do you think a stimulus is?  That's the whole point.  No, seriously. That's the point." President Barack Obama

Obama signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. source: wikimedia

"[T]his plan will begin to end the tyranny of oil in our time -- doubles our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy, like wind and solar and biofuels.  And it does it in three years; saves taxpayers billions of dollars; makes federal buildings more efficient; saves the average working family hundreds of dollars on their energy bills.  After decades of empty rhetoric, that's the down payment that we need on energy independence.” President Barack Obama

Touted as the new New Deal, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) could be the epitome of public sector investment in contemporary America.  It contains directives and funding from Washington, and it did so with the rhetoric of strong and swift leadership.  The ARRA is a stimulus packaged to embody the coordination and integration of the top-down action embraced in times of crisis.  And yet the ARRA is diffuse in its execution, as it directs stimulus funding to shovel-ready projects in the works by state and local governments. 

Its approach and promotion are premised on the need for urgency and the resulting need for centralized decision making. In a speech with Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu in February of 2009, President Barack Obama impassioned: “This is the moment for leadership that matches the great test of our times.  And I know you want to work with me to get there. If we do not move swiftly to sign the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, an economy that is already in crisis will be faced with catastrophe.  This is not my assessment.  This is not Nancy Pelosi's assessment.  This is the assessment of the best economists in the country. This is the assessment of some of the former advisors of some of the same folks who are making these criticisms right now. Millions more Americans will lose their jobs.  Homes will be lost. Families will go without health care. Our crippling dependence on foreign oil will continue.  That is the price of inaction.” President Barack Obama.  The need for comprehensive, swift, and decisive action from the top was supported against the risk of maintaining the economic status quo:  “With government making so many monumental decisions in such a short time, there will surely be unintended consequences…But policymakers’ most serious missteps so far have come from acting too slowly, too timidly, and in a seemingly scattershot way.” The Economic Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

Energy-related measures in the ARRA involve both public-sector investments and private-sector incentives.  The improvements to government buildings may have a great effect on energy efficiency nationwide, given that the government has been estimated to be the largest energy consumer in the country.  While these effects may be substantial, the legislation mandates energy efficiency improvements in government-owned properties, leaving the private market to participate in such improvements voluntarily with the incentives presented by tax credits.  In addition to funding federal-level efficiency measures, the ARRA includes funding for state and local governments to improve the energy efficiency in their buildings.  Funds were allocated at the federal, state, and local levels for investment in energy-efficient vehicles. Other measures include: 

  • The ARRA created several funding measures for the improvement of energy efficiency of government buildings.  The legislation created an Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings within the General Services Administration and allocated funding for energy-efficiency improvements to federal buildings.  Further, $4 billion was invested toward improving energy efficiency in public housing.   
  • The ARRA provided funding for energy-related infrastructural improvements.  These investments included $11 billion in funding for an electric smart grid and $4.5 billion for the Office of Electricity and Energy Reliability to modernize the nation’s electrical grid.  Further, the ARRA also included $6 billion in loans for renewable energy and electric transmission technologies loan guarantees.  Additionally, the program provides $3.25 billion specifically for the Western Area Power Administration for power transmission system upgrades. 
  • The ARRA dedicated $3.2 billion toward Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants.

While the ARRA has been rejected from the right as an over-inflation of state powers and deficits, it's scope is limited by its implementation structure: "But where the New Deal was designed around a series of monumental public works projects, ARRA is structured around investing in numerous smaller projects, upgrading existing structures and enhancing energy efficiency 'You won't see big iconic structures out of this plan, but the impact of new sustainable technologies society will be enormous', describes Andrew Goldberg, senior director of Federal Affairs at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, DC." Jaffer Kolb, Architectural Review Critics argue that the speed of the needed investment into the economy does not guarantee that the funding will go to the best projects or most qualified recipients.

The ARRA doesn't reach far enough, argues Nancy Levinson, editor of Places: "[I]t seems increasingly — depressingly — clear that the Great Recession is not (yet) sparking a new New Deal, a contemporary WPA. The New Deal was a big-scale, legacy-building, vision-to-burn public sector response to national crisis. But in 2010, unlike in the '30s, we confront our crisis in a social-political climate that's to a large degree contemptuous of public sector solutions, and more, hostile to the very idea of the public.” The Public Works

Vishaan Chakrabarti

 “Imagine they said 'America, we have a silver bullet. We are going to rebuild this country.'" Being Dense about Denmark

Levittown, Pennsylvania. source: wikimedia 

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Federal Highway Act of 1964. source: wikimedia

As an advocate for dense urban development, Chakrabarti argues that a strong government is necessary to negotiate the complex relationships necessary to make density work. 

Government must take on this responsibility, he argues, because it--and not the free market--was the driving force behind mid-20th Century suburbanization. “We would be wise to remember that the suburbs were a Federal creation – built out of a fear of race, as well as a nuclear arms race. White flight was synthetic, fueled by a set of policies intended to encourage the use of cars and discourage the use of cities." A Country of Cities

In an interview with Underdome researchers, Chakrabarti explains: "There’s an insufficient understanding today about the fact that the government, over the course of the last half century, has created the lifestyle that most Americans live in. It’s set up all the conditions that people now somehow assume are market-based conditions, which they’re not. I think that fundamentally comes down to the Federal Highway Act, the Federal Mortgage Act, and a series of other policies that we saw the government enact in the ‘40s and the ‘50s. In Title I the government was telling the population that for all sorts of reasons – for issues of public health, issues of national security, because of the fear of the Cold War – that as a population we needed to decentralize. And I think if you look at what [Robert] Moses was doing in terms of the creation of parkways where you couldn’t get a city bus through a parkway that was built on Long Island, there’s a clear kind of stratification that was set up that said, “If you were a successful person in America you lived in the suburbs,” which had the desired effect.

"So, to me, when I call for government action to address issues like infrastructure, it’s basically to reverse this trend and also to make people aware of the fact that the way people live is a highly artificial construct. Suburbs are an artificial construct. They didn’t truly exist in any meaningful way before World War II. A lot of things that we just take for granted don’t necessarily need to be the way they are.” Underdome Interview

How much such changes be made?

 “Perhaps we might hear our leaders promote time-tested ideas of density and mass transportation, of cities using far less energy per capita.  Imagine they instead said 'America, we have a silver bullet. We are going to rebuild this country. We are going to build a new national landscape, and in the process we are going to create jobs, build an innovation economy, rein in health care costs, lower our dependence on foreign oil, and lead the planet to sustainability.“ Being Dense About Denmark

To effect large-scale change, Chakrabarti sketches out a plan called American Smart Infrastructure Act. (ASIA): “We will build and rebuild infrastructure that lowers greenhouse gas emissions and encourages urban density, emphasizing high-speed rail, transmission grids from alternative energy sources, national internet broadband, and critical roadway maintenance. We will  de-emphasize all infrastructure that exacerbates emissions, particularly roadway and airport expansion projects. The government will fund approximately $350 billion (about half of TARP) over three years, solving the nation’s mobility needs while lowering automobile use and censuring the energy devoured by McMansions. The Future of Real Estate

Such bold initiatives require an empowered state: "If you look at China, it is extraordinary to think that they pumped $585 billion of stimulus primarily infrastructural project into the economy in almost no time flat. People say, well they’re not a democracy, we’re a democracy. Well, what does democracy get us? It doesn’t get us Central Park anymore. Do you think Central Park would get built today? No, because some assembly members in Far Rockaway needs a piece of Central Park in Far Rockaway. ... We’ve kind of gone loony about this. We can’t seem to efficiently allocate resources. … Between the political left and the political right in the country where they really join forces is this extraordinary questioning of authority. And that’s something that’s fundamentally different about this country. It’s something that’s great about the country but at the same time it impedes us from being able to say, there is an engineering rationale, or an economic rationale, or an architect rationale ... and actually say what’s more important.” The Future of Real Estate

Density in a democracy is still possible, but more complex: “There are plenty of democratic examples where this stuff is getting built in a more rational way. The classic examples of course are in Europe: London, a new train station in Berlin, a high-speed rail system in Spain. Hong Kong is a kind of quasi-democracy, but it has still a very clear the emphasis on infrastructure. I think there is country after country where you can look to precedents and say, 'You can actually build these big things with community input in a democratic process. It’s slower.” Underdome Interview

Federal Weatherization Program

President Ford signing the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1976. source: www.energy.gov

Through the Federal Weatherization Assistance program, the US federal government established funding and technical assistance (which are both administered locally) to assist lower-income individuals in weatherizing their homes.The Federal Weatherization Assistance program is administered by the states individually.  

In New York State, weatherization services are organized through community-based organizations.  "In 2007-2008 approximately $55 million was allocated to 64 community-based organizations" statewide.  New York City includes 16 of these organizations. New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.  "Weatherization Assistance Providers."
 

Tom Friedman

Green is going from boutique to better... from a source of electric power to a source of national power, from an insoluble problem to a great opportunity—economic and geopolitical. Hot, Flat, and Crowded, 213

"What 'red' was to America in the 1950s and 1960s—a symbol of the overarching Communist threat, the symbol that was used to mobilize our country to build up its military, its industrial base, its highways, its railroads, ports, and airports, its educational institutions, and its scientific capabilities to lead the world in defense of freedom—we need 'green' to be for today’s America."  Hot, Flat, and Crowded, 57

"…if we are going to summon the will, focus, and authority to push through a real green revolution, we will need a president who isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes to lead it. To win the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had to democratically take authority away from the states and invest it in a federal government that he made bigger and stronger than any America had seen since its founding. He even suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Franklin Roosevelt had to transform a weak, thin federal government into the massive institution it is today in order to overcome the Great Depression and win World War II." Hot, Flat, and Crowded, 469

Commentary

Climate Vision

While over 150 countries entered into the Kyoto treaty, it was rejected by the Bush administration due to the potential economic effects of mandatory emission reductions.  As a result, Climate VISION was initiated by the administration with the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Critics argue that this approach lacks teeth in that "(1) it arguably does not require any change on the part of industries beyond what would likely take place regardless of the initiative; (2) any change is voluntary; and (3) if they do institute a change, they are praised for making the change.  All in all, the Climate VISION initiative is safe and inexpensive for the “regulated” industries, especially when compared to a real limit on total emissions (rather than a reduction in the ratio of emissions) such as the one required under the Kyoto Protocol.” Is President Bush's Vision Impaired?

Bjorn Lomborg

Lomborg opposes government spending on costly methods of climate mitigation and energy efficiency measures, but advocates government-sponsored investment in energy research and development of climate modification technology.  

To accelerate the development of alternative technologies, he proposes governments of all nations “commit themselves to spending 0.05 percent of GDP in R&D of non-carbon-emitting technologies.”  He claims it would cost a “relatively minor $25 billion per year (seven times cheaper than Kyoto)” and would “recapture the vision of delivering both a low-carbon and high income world.”  Cool It, 156

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