Blog: Richard Murphy

Richard "Murph" Murphy is a computer geek turned urban planner living and working in Ypsilanti.  He is also a seasoned blogger, having maintained his own site, Common Monkeyflower since 2001, and contributed to Arbor Update since 2004.  

Murph writes about the role of urban centers in a rapidly changing post-manufacturing economy. Join the conversation on our new interactive blog!

Post No. 3

From obstructionism to opportunity?

A few weeks ago, a group from MoveOn demonstrated outside Representative Dingell's offices here in Ypsilanti, calling him a "dinosaur" for his views on global warming. A group of counter-demonstrators from the UAW arrived shortly afterward to show their support for Rep. Dingell.  The parties were apparently able to come to an agreement, though, as Rep. Dingell this week introduced legislation to create a broad carbon tax.

Unfortunately, my Representative seems insincere. The Detroit News sums it up well as "a brilliant political counter-move," an intentionally unrealistic plan meant to derail any talk of regulating emissions. Rather than engaging in productive dialogue, Rep. Dingell has lobbed a hand grenade into the conference room so that he can point and laugh when nobody decides to pick it up.

Would increased energy taxes be so bad for Michigan's economy, though? Considering the blame placed on "off-shoring" for the UAW's woes, one has to wonder. Shipping auto parts and finished cars (or the entire inventory of WalMart) back and forth across the world is only possible because of artificially cheap energy - businesses can move production to wherever cheap labor is available, shipping finished products cheaply across the world. With increased energy costs, however, this math begins to change. The higher the cost of energy, for whatever reason, the more it makes sense to produce close to the destination.

This is more often stated with regards to tourism, "With the rising price of gasoline, Michiganders are expected to vacation closer to home this summer." I've heard it said that Ypsilanti's annual Heritage Festival, held in August, was originally organized during the energy crisis of the 1970s as a way for families to have fun locally. Agriculture (one of the State's three largest industries, along with tourism) provides other clear examples: as the cost of shipping increases, retailers will figure out what should be obvious: that shipping apples from Washington or Argentina to Michigan makes no sense, at least from August to November.

Higher energy costs make it more advantageous for Michigan's residents to buy products produced in Michigan, rather than sending our dollars elsewhere. Meanwhile, our powerhouse educational institutions can be expected to lead the way in energy efficiency innovations - a recent study showed that Michigan's University Research Corridor compared favorably to better recognized research clusters, both in bringing in Federal grant money and creating patents.

I can't say that increased energy costs would be a panacaea for Michigan's economy - certainly, both businesses and individual residents would have to adapt to higher prices.  Consider the very real damage posed to Michigan's economy from climate change, though, ranging from crop damage to reduced Great Lakes shipping - and consider that "keep everything the same" is probably not the best idea for our economy right now. With the very real national interest in combatting climate change, shouldn't we be helping steer the attack, rather than dragging our heels and falling to the rear?

So let's looks back to Rep. Dingell's proposal. Boosting the gas tax by 50 cents, immediately, is unrealistic, and would create severe hardship for a great many people - I expect his suggested tax on other forms of fuel is similarly dramatic, though I haven't seen numbers. However extremely he's chosen to make the statement, though, he does have a point: personal automobiles account for only a portion of greenhouse emissions, and changes will have to be made across the board, rather than by continuing to kick one industry.

Maybe his truly "brilliant political move" is yet to come. Perhaps the Representative intends this shock-and-awe proposal as a demonstration of how much work we've got ahead of us - and will soon be rolling out his real plan: increase the tax on gasoline by 10 cents annually, and similarly ratchet up the tax on other energy sources. The proceeds from the tax will be dedicating to providing alternatives - tax credits for high efficiency appliances and added home insulation, improved mass transit systems, rebuilt local agricultural systems, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly cities, a functional national rail system, and research funding. This more gradual approach will provide people with time to react, the dedication of proceeds to helping citizens adapt will enable those adaptations, and the changing economic environment - as well as relevent research funding - will encourage us to move forward.

America is coming around, if slowly, to understanding the need to address climate change, and Representative Dingell is savvy enough to know it. I'm confident that he's got something up his sleeve like the plan I outlined above, and I look forward to his unveiling it.

This isn't the post I originally meant to make today, but it wanted to be made, and it fits in well with one I had meant to make: tomorrow, expect more on environmentally-friendly job creation.