Thursday, June 5, 2008

Less oil, less casinos, more American dream

There is no greater stain on my beloved country than the shameful history and present life of its first residents. Slavery is a close second, but I see many more attempts to make amends for slavery in the present than I do to rectify the crushing reality imposed upon such a large number of Native Americans. This isn't so clear in Massachusetts where Native American culture is so assimilated and dispersed, but in the midwest or southwest daily existence on American Indian communities is shameful for the richest nation in the world.

At the same time, too many identify Native American cultures only with casinos. Given the curious understanding of sovereignty concerning Native American government, it is much easier to facilitate gambling on land under American Indian sovereignty. Given that sometime exclusive access to a lucrative revenue stream, popular culture too often shows Native American culture only within the context of casinos (the only time I've seen a Native American on Family Guy, for example, is in a casino setting). This, even though every New England resort casino is matched by a threadbare bingo hall in the midwest.

Meanwhile, we're running out of oil. Demand continues to rise, particularly in emerging economies. Gas is $, $3.90...wait, $3.97 per gallon. We'll need alternatives.

Finally, three facts I'd like to mention about the town of Kayenta, Arizona: almost 93% of the population is Native American. Income, home value, and education are well below the state medians. Per capita income is under $10,000. And every month of the year, there is sunshine at least 70% of the time.

Here's what I propose:

A massive federal government program that would offer low-interest, long-term loans to selected low-income zones within the American southwest such as Kayenta, whose administration is co-ordinated with (but not entirely turned over to) tribal governments. The loans would be for about 20-year terms, at prime rate or just below.

The lion's share of the loans would be used to build large -- very large -- solar power arrays on the flatlands of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Some money would be used to train local residents in the technology of the plant. Given the regular sunshine and low rate of precipitation, solar collectors would generate enough juice over a couple decades to sell into the grid that would repay the loan, and then some. Furthermore, expectations are set that materials be bought from American suppliers (such as local concern Evergreen Solar) whenever possible.

Benefits to the hosting area:
  • A reliable, regular source of income
  • An attractor for high-income, high education workers and attendant services
  • A largely inelastic industry that cannot be outsourced
  • A job stream for residents, with predecessor education
  • Real American investment in the community

Benefits to consumers:
  • Less dependence on foreign energy
  • High income American jobs across the industry
  • Cleaner energy
  • A long-term commitment to these ideals
  • A wider flow of money to increase jobs in these industries nationwide

There are many holes in the plan, not least of all the need to mandate inclusion of local economy into these projects. No good having a massive company descend upon a town to ship in workers and call the shots. I'm not advocating socialist and nationalist power generation a la Citgo in Venezuela. However, most electric companies cannot be trusted.

Native American government is as susceptible to corruption as any other kind, and strict controls and audits would need to be undertaken.

Of course, it would help to not have a president who takes his orders from the oil industry. Better to have someone like this guy.

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