01/22/2013 08:28 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Obama's Second Term and the Sustainability Agenda

While it was heartening to see President Obama assert an aggressive approach to climate change and maintaining our social safety net during his inaugural address, there remains a strange dissonance to the political dialogue in Washington, an almost shocking sense of irrelevance as the real issues we face go undefined and we find politicos already jockeying for the mid-term elections. The president seems willing to move forward, but the rest of D.C. seems stuck in the mud.

Everyone has an explanation for our slow-growing economy but none of the explanations seem plausible. Innovation, entrepreneurship and economic dynamism are not being held back by over-regulation. China and India are growing like there's no tomorrow and their governments are far more intrusive than ours. Moreover, it is clear that regulation often motivates technological innovation - a clear trend in energy efficiency.

The critique from the left focuses on the economic impact of income inequality. I agree that America's growing income inequality is unjust and it is clear that young people have begun to lose hope in the future. While government-funded stimulus is needed, and we need to get cash into the hands of working Americans, it is not clear that stimulus alone will be sufficient. I think what is missing is a meaningful and clear vision of a better, shared future. Not a future without individual achievement, but one that embeds individual accomplishment in a meaningful community.

I think that we have a crisis of confidence. As FDR once said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." There are no great national projects, no dreams, and there is no inspirational vision. America seems to be drawn to its mythological past. To that ideal time when we adhered to the American constitution, lifted ourselves up by our bootstraps and made America the "greatest nation on earth."

Of course, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, gender inequality, poverty, wanton drunken violence and a few other problems seem to have also been part of that traditional American landscape, but those images do not seem to penetrate the gauzy glow of those looking to restore a past that never really was.

I think as Barack Obama begins his second term as president, it is time for him to return to that often derided theme of hope. Hope was a good theme, but it was not specific enough. We need to commit to some specific goals for the future, goals that are drawn from an operational and clear-headed vision of where we need to go in the world that we now live in. Let's try to understand the world economy and society that is well underway and then figure out a way to define an American place in that world. Nearly half a century ago in his song "It's Alright Ma," Bob Dylan warned us: "That he not busy born is busy dying." I am starting to worry that ideological, fantasy-based politics is keeping this country from what has always been its unique strength - its ability to periodically reinvent itself. We have always been too busy building the future to pine for the past. We were busy being born and now I worry that we are busy dying.

What are the facts of the new world we live in? We live in a brain-based global economy. Brains matter more than brawn, and very few products and services are made in one place. Software costs more than hardware. It is more profitable to design a phone than to manufacture it. We don't lose jobs to China, economic growth in China leads to growth here, and economic growth here fuels economic growth in China. We are not competing with China's industries, we are all part of each other's businesses. While we remain two sovereign states with two sets of values and cultures, we are increasingly part of a single economy that includes many nations.

The future belongs to the societies capable of generating and re-generating ideas, research, technology, science and compelling images. The goal is to influence human ideals, values and behavior. In that sense, America has an impressive present and future. Our movies, video games, software, research universities, and ability to collect and deploy brainpower remain unmatched. While the post 9/11 era and the anti-foreign zeal of some have made immigration more difficult, America remains the most diverse nation on Earth. My home city of New York is an example of that diversity. About 40 percent of the people who live here were born in other countries, and many of the rest of us are not far removed from immigrant parents or grandparents. The political impact of the Hispanic vote reminds us that America remains a nation of immigrants. These are tremendous assets in a brain-based global economy. The competition is now about ideas, technologies, and using those ideas and technologies to make life better.

The smart phone and internet have brought friends and families closer together. This invention has been woven into the fabric of our lives. It was U.S. government (yes government) investment in basic research and development that created the technologies that led to these inventions. The transformative technology we need next is renewable and hopefully decentralized energy. We need this to mitigate climate change and make our lifestyles more resilient when faced with the impacts of the climate change already underway. Climate change will not be stopped by rules and regulations, but by renewable energy that costs less than fossil fuels.

President Obama should abandon the "all of the above" energy policy nonsense he spouted during the campaign. We will obviously have no choice but pursue all of the above until we have invented a renewable energy technology that is cheaper than fossil fuels. The heart of our national sustainability agenda should be an all-out effort to develop that technology. Military research and our national labs should focus on it, and the National Science Foundation should be given hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to advance energy research and training.

Immigration reform is part of this agenda, because we need to fix the mess we've created and we also need to encourage every engineer and scientist in the world to come to America, raise a family and contribute their brainpower to this important national mission. Infrastructure reconstruction should be part of this agenda, because to attract the smartest people in the world, we need to maintain America's safety, stability, and quality of life. Dirty air and water, traffic congestion and collapsing transportation infrastructure repel rather than attract people. We are competing with the rest of the world to attract brains and businesses. To succeed we need great schools, dynamic and entertaining cities, and beautiful public spaces. Government must play a central role in making that happen.

We need to return to the type of vision that built the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, New York City's water and subway systems, the land grant colleges, and Project Apollo. This past weekend the NY Times provided a sample of columnist Sam Roberts' new book on the construction of New York's Grand Central Station. The book contains insight on the audacity of American entrepreneurs a century ago. When discussing the huge cost of the Grand Central Station, Roberts observed that the:

"...projected $35 million price tag for all the improvements nearly equaled half the railroad's revenue for a full year. Moreover, the railroad made most of its money hauling freight, not people. Why invest so much in a project that benefited only passengers?"

Still, the railroad thought big, and built a combination train station and early shopping mall. The actual cost of the station was twice the initial estimate and in today's dollars would equal $2 billion. We seem to no longer be capable of big projects and big risks unless they involve extracting fossil fuels out of the ground. We are too eager to make quick profits and too scared to invest in the future. That is unfortunate, since we need to develop stretch goals to build a sustainable renewable economy.

While the national agenda has many pieces, its mission must be to allow America to succeed in the emerging global economy. The center of that mission should be a single great national project: the development and implementation of low-cost, renewable energy. No single action would have greater consequences for the future of this country and the sustainability of our modern economy. President Obama should build on the momentum of his second inaugural and get busy being born.