As a relentless, slow moving recession continues to strangle the housing and auto sectors, someone sent an e-mail with several links to articles about the auto industry. The articles detail the hard times now befalling GM, Ford and Chrysler who, like many US industries, are facing declining sales, rising costs and the need for major layoffs.

One Detroit News article focuses on the hurdles automakers face in meeting the new CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards Congress adopted last year. In a joint filing submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US and some foreign automakers claim that 82,000 jobs will be lost by 2015, with a net economic cost of over $28 billion.

Regulators and industry always differ on the costs and benefits of new standards, and the NHTSA disputes the automakers’ claims [as do others], but it concedes the industry faces a retooling effort that will cost tens of billions just to meet the CAFE standards, and that’s just the beginning of what needs to be done.

We have an economy built around a vast fleet of millions of cars and trucks, subsidized by a massive investment in highways circling and interconnecting where we live and work. Even under the most ambitious scenarios, we’ll need to maintain that system for decades, even as we radically transform it.

There is a compelling need — some would say a national security or global climate imperative — to increase the fuel efficiency of that vast fleet, probably change its fuel source and technology, reduce it’s vulnerability to strategic fuel disruptions and price rises and reduce it’s contribution to global climate change. It’s a staggering task, yet we need to do it quickly, within a few decades at most.

What struck me about these stories was the huge disconnect between the magnitude of this task and the relatively light attention this is getting in the Presidential campaign. If anything in our history called out for a massive, well planned and coordinated government-industry effort to transform a vital industry, this is it. But that’s not what’s happening.

So far the two campaigns — and the media — have given only scant attention to what needs to be done and what we’d have to do to pull it off. We hear the usual rhetoric about something equivalent to going to the moon, but almost no discussion of what that means.

McCain wants to give an award for a better battery for electric or hybrid cars. Okay, but what will it take to restructure our homes, electric distribution/transmission and generation systems to supply the energy? What will displace the hundreds of coal plants we rely on today? What does the public "refueling" system look like and how does that get built? How can we pay for this while spending $12 billion a month in Iraq? Will it take major government investment and direction, as some suggest?

Obama has suggested he’d be willing to help the auto industry make this transition by relieving them of health care costs. That seems like a good idea, but how do we structure that tradeoff, how do we pay for it, and how does it fit with the broader effort for universal health care?

We’re in desperate need of a national industrial policy, tied to a national energy and climate policy, tied to a national health policy, supported by an infrastructure reinvestment policy, and all backed by revenue, monetary and tax policies. We need all of this explained so Americans know we’ve got a plan, what’s expected of them and the leadership to pull it off.

But first, we need a national conversation about these issues — and dozens of related topics — but instead the media is fixated on the silliness of the week. Today it’s whether we can even ask if John McCain’s POW experience would make him a good President and whether Obama has sufficiently answered questions about his religion and patriotism from those who have the narrowest views on both. It’s mindless, utterly mindless, and there’s no excuse for it.

h/t Greg Greene



John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley