Cook: The $900 million gamble

Cook: The $900 million gamble

May 13th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

The state is gambling $900 million that the 21st century will look like the 20th.

The last 100 years were the Monopoly years of American history. We excelled at manufacturing and industry, leading the world in creating the consumer economy. We were the top hat envy of everyone.

The 20th century began with the Model T, and ended with the promise of plug-in cars. In between, an explosion of travel: highways, byways and interstates.

Will it all continue? Can we encore the 20th century into the next 100 years?

Our state is gambling yes.

Six years ago, Tennessee lured VW here with $577 million in incentives to build its plant in Hamilton County. It was the largest incentive deal ever offered to an automotive manufacturer.

Now, they've offered another $300 million for VW to add its SUV line here, instead of Puebla, Mexico.

(Where's the ceiling, Tennessee legislators? Would you have offered $1 billion?)

So far, it's worked. A 2012 study showed VW's presence here has produced more than 12,400 jobs -- direct and indirect -- with $22 million each year in local tax revenue.

If Chattanooga lands the SUV production -- my bookie gave 50-to-1 odds that we will -- then another 1,200 jobs are expected. I think that's a low-ball: the auto world will interpret VW building an SUV here as a double-down commitment, and swamp the place with suppliers and satellite jobs which then bring real estate investments, new schools and more.

It's going to be great ... but how long will it last?

Drive by U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry, and you'll see the ghosts of the 20th century. Once a shining source of livelihoods, it's now a wrecked shell, the victim of economic forces from Wall Street to China.

The day will come when VW will close its doors in the same way that Wheland did. All things are impermanent, Buddha said. And nothing gold can stay, as Ponyboy Curtis liked to quote.

The question we should be asking: What will send VW and other car manufacturers into the grave?

Will it be the coming technology, expanding at an ever-increasing speed that is both promising and threatening in its potential that could make cars, and many other things, obsolete? (Read Stephen Hawking's recent HuffPo essay on artificial intelligence, and then wish you hadn't).

Will it be climate change, which has been predicted to alter the very face of human society?

Will it be the slow death of global capitalism, and its resource-draining economic vampirism?

Few people talked about these things in the 20th century, when we created the credit card and shopping malls. There were no limits, and every resource seemed renewable.

Today, everything's in transition, and like some roulette wheel, nobody's quite sure where the spinning's going to stop, if it ever does.

Our honeybees are sick. So are our bats. California's dry as dirt (guess where half our nation's veggies and fruits come from) and the price of Midwest beef is through the roof.

Scientists say that we're in the midst of a mass extinction, caused by human impact.

"Conservationists fear many animal and plant species will vanish forever thanks to our impact on the planet," reports the BBC.

Our debt is Tower of Babel tall, and political dysfunction worse than "Dynasty." Our national media reports on Justin Bieber and Donald Sterling, and fails to report the real issues: move along, nothing to see here, move along.

Simply put: our house ain't so sturdy anymore.

How long will the 21st century look like the 20th? How long will we try to make it?

Even though VW has built the greenest factory, and its new SUV is cutting-edge efficient, their greenness is not the reason state officials are panting over their presence here. I wager they would have offered the same incentive package to Hummer.

Ask them, and they'd say: for jobs. To grow the economy.

Instead, I think it feels good to land VW here. It tells us that everything will be OK, the psychological equivalent of a stocked basement.

It's a hearty prayer of faith that our system can continue, that we can keep building roads and making cars and buying things and burning fossil fuels.

We either can, or can't. Things can either go on as before, or be irrevocably altered.

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.