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By now, anyone with half a brain who is paying attention to the latest news cycles knows that the whole manufactured brouhaha over President Obama's "You didn't build that" comment is nothing more than Mitt Romney's latest desperate attempt to harness the "Obama is a Socialist" angst among certain parts of the less informed American electorate.

Mitt Romney's new sloga,
While creative editing of your opponent's statements for political advantage is probably as old as homo sapiens, the brazen omission — sliced up by right wing shysters and picked up by the Romney campaign — of the context in which the word "that" was used in President Obama's speech, has backfired, as it should. It's almost hard to believe that the Romney campaign would serve the President such a doozy of a slam dunk, seeing how in this day and age of instant fact check and rebuttal the desired effect of using such a disingenuously butchered sound bite to paint your opponent as someone who supposedly doesn't believe business owners don't work hard is so easily exposed as the boldfaced lie it is.

It was as if Romney, in his clumsy zeal for cheap applause from the most reality-challenged segment of society, was begging the Obama campaign to immediately and unequivocally shove that steaming pile of malice back into his smirking face.  

However, while it's almost a guilty-pleasure for every thinking observer and their pundit-mother to go for the low-hanging fruit of exposing and ridiculing Mitt for this all-too-obvious cheap shot and expose him (once again) for the conniving yet empty suit that he is, I think there's a bigger opportunity here to take Mitt's gift of the fumbled "that" and run with it to a higher ground for one of those fabled teaching moments that gets much more mileage than just one victorious news cycle.

As I see it, Mitt's blunder has given us an opportunity to actually have a dialog about what the President was really talking about in his speech.

So... let's talk about THAT!

Work zone American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sign at new road construction project site
putting America to work
elementary school children playing
getting an education

In his actual unedited speech, the President already listed some of the "thats," the things we collectively invest in, benefit from, and don't build on our own, like teachers, roads, bridges, the internet, and fire fighters. He's been talking about this social contract ever since I first heard him speak, so there wasn't really anything new about what he said, other than the somewhat awkward placement of "that" in reference to the roads and bridges in the previous sentence . Elizabeth Warren's famous explanation of why nobody in this country gets rich on their own was a big hit because it brought some real emotion and excitement to the "thats" we often take for granted.

However, these "thats" can get lost in translation or make themselves susceptible to verbal abuses and distortions — from those who are either too ignorant, manipulative, or greedy to understand and accept the idea of the commons — when they're presented in too general terms.

mail carrier delivering US mail in San Francisco
delivering the mail on time
For example, "government jobs" sounds very dry and detached, but when I talk to my mail carrier about her day, her route, and her family, it immediately connects the dots for me between the mutually beneficial mechanisms at work: We collectively pay for Ms. Mailwoman to perform the crucial service of keeping citizens connected and businesses operating at an affordable rate, and Ms. Mailwoman in turn invests our investment in her in her family and her community, getting her kids through school, making home improvements, and shopping at the local grocery store. Along the way, we chat on my front stoop and connect as human beings. I'm proud that part of my taxes go to support this woman, and I'm grateful that I can get a letter hand-delivered, within 3 days, coast to coast, for less than a buck, smiles included.  

That, to me, is THAT! It's personal, it's concrete, and it affects my life every day.

Let me give another example, the actual reason for writing this diary.

FortZED net-zero energy district, Fort Collins, CO
A couple of weeks ago I got an assignment to write an article for Alternet about a report recently released by Climate Solutions, entitled Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up. It basically chronicles how 22 smaller cities across the U.S. with populations under 250,000 have been establishing themselves as leaders in pioneering clean energy solutions and addressing greenhouse gas emissions over the past 3 years.

Not the most headline-inducing subject by any stretch, but that was the point of the article: to bring much deserved attention to these local municipalities who have been working tirelessly on reducing their energy use and ecological footprint. As part of my research, I got to join a tele-briefing that included the authors of the report and representatives from four of the cities featured in it. It was really cool to listen to city officials and community group representatives from Babylon, NY, Knoxville, TN, Fort Collins, CO, and Bellingham, WA talk about everything from lighting retrofits and new solar installations to building codes reducing residential carbon footprint by 20-40% and the first ever net-zero energy district in the country.

Here's the "that:" The longer the session went on, the more clear it became just how instrumental the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka The Stimulus, has been in boosting these communities' efforts in becoming cleaner and greener, and in the process saving them energy and money, and create new jobs and opportunities. Please allow me to quote myself:

Insulating homes in Bellingham, WA
What has the stimulus done for you (or anyone else) lately? Look no further than most of the 22 cities in the report, because that's where a lot of that money is going now. Many of these programs and initiatives did not exist until three years ago, when the federal government made an $80 billion investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs -- including an unprecedented $3.2 billion in the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) program, allocated by the DoE to cities and counties around the country. The stimulus, coupled with $20 million in competitive EPA grants for local governments to implement climate change initiatives, was the shot in the arm many of these municipalities needed to follow through on existing local initiatives, as well as dream up bold new and transformational projects.


Community solar installation, Knoxville, TN
The city of Knoxville, Tennessee used a $200,000 Department of Energy Solar Cities grant to get contractors and permitting officials up to speed on solar energy installations, taking the community from just under 15 kilowatts of solar energy capacity to two megawatts. “In the southeast, the leadership for renewable energy and even energy efficiency is very weak,” says the city’s sustainability manager, Susanna Sutherland, “so Knoxville took the opportunity of receiving federal funds to brand itself as a leader in the field.” Up in Bellingham, Washington, Alex Ramel shows how federal investments are key to building the new green economy. “When we spend a federal dollar providing discounted energy assessments or buying down interest rates on a loan, we see that dollar matched by close to a dollar and 20 cents in private investment by home or business owners spending money on equipment.”
Get that?

We often hear in very general terms about how the stimulus has been investing in a clean energy future, but quite commonly we don't really know what that means. Even the charts and overall numbers often don't quite bring it home until you see what people are doing with the money. As impressive as they are, big numbers and investments can as easily be castigated as excessive as they can be celebrated as progress.

Hearing from real people in these communities makes all the difference. "$80 billion investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs" can be twisted into "Solyndra, waste, corruption, blah blah...," but when Fort Collins utility manager Steve Catanach says that the stimulus package has enabled them to run 27 programs helping his community reduce its energy usage and costs, from refrigerator rebates to modernizing the electric grid across their entire city, you get it: That is not an abstract concept, but a concrete example of the dynamic, multifaceted, and mutually beneficial relationship between the strength of the commons and individual effort.  

Chart showing distribution of 2009 Obama stimulus package money.
general "THAT"
specific "THAT"
While it's fun watching Mitt and a whole slew of "I DID build it" diehards throw themselves into an intellectual abyss over and over again, we're really presented here with an open invitation to do something we haven't been able to do in this country since Ronald Reagan made the stigmatization of the commons fashionable: to acknowledge and take pride in the things we create together!

This is ultimately about raising the level of discourse to have an honest conversation about how to best navigate these challenging times we find ourselves in. Nobody, and least of them President Obama, questions the importance of individual contributions, whether it's the hard work of the guys carrying the "I DID build it" signs or the motivated public service of Susanna Sutherland in Knoxville or Steve Catanach in Fort Collins.

Mitt Romney's new backdrop
There's no "I" in "We"
Hell, if ever we needed more ambitious and inspired individuals to step up to the plate to find solutions to the many problems we're having on this planet, it is right now.  

But you can't do it alone and in a vacuum, not even the most ruggedly independent spirits among us. Mitt Romney looks like a bloody fool for forcing us to choose between collective support and individual effort, when it's just so plain obvious that they are intrinsically linked together. Like so many of his other rhetorical Hail Marys, it's not just a short-lived and losing argument for him, but a splendid opening to shine a light on how much we benefit individually, in our communities, and as citizens of a small and fragile planet from the investments we make in "thats" like education, public health, and clean energy infrastructure, and how these "thats" in turn are only as good as the people who build and nourish them.  

So now that Mitt Romney is reminding us all that the exclusively self-made creature he invokes is about as real as the abominable snowman, we can get to the real business of figuring out just how much investment in the public good, aka taxes, leads to the highest level of individual opportunity and well being for the greatest number of people and in the most sustainable fashion for the planet we all depend on for long-term survival and happiness. To do that, we need to hear much more from people all around the country about their reciprocal relationships with the communities they live, work, and thrive in.

Now THAT's what I'm talking about!


PS: The full article that inspired this rant...

How Smaller Cities are Taking the Lead in Sustainability Innovation

Originally posted to Ecomusings by Sven Eberlein on Sat Aug 04, 2012 at 02:32 PM PDT.

Also republished by I Vote for Democrats.


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