On Saturday, September 10, I attended a candidates’ forum at the Senior Center in Royal Oak, Michigan. The candidates in question are running for Royal Oak City Commission. This type of election is, in Michigan, technically non-partisan. Each candidate gets signatures on a petition to enter the race. No party nominations considered. No party identification is shown on the ballot, only the names of the individuals running. Those are the relevant technicalities.

Since this forum was held by the local Democratic Club, it should be no surprise that the three candidates attending (out of a field of 7) were all members of the Democratic Club. All three were seeking the endorsement of the Democratic Club, and got it.

I do not live in Royal Oak, so I won’t be voting for any of the candidates. I was attending because I’m a member of the Sierra Club South East Michigan Group (SEMG) Political Committee. One of the candidates requested endorsement by the Sierra Club. When this happens in a non-partisan election, the Sierra Club gives every candidate on the ballot a chance at endorsement. In the meeting of the political committee the previous Wednesday, I ended up being responsible for contacting all seven candidates, sending the Sierra Club questionnaire, collecting the replies and sending replies to the other committee members who will make the initial decisions on endorsement.

The chair of the political committee also attended the meeting. After, by e-mail, he asked for my impression of the candidates we saw. I had to give some thought to how to answer this question, because the flaws I see in these candidates are the same flaws I see in most conventional candidates. That includes a lot of Green Party candidates – which I had better mention, because I’m active in the Green Party as well as the Sierra Club and the Transition Towns movement.

Candidates at the meeting were Kyle Dubuc, Michael Fournier and Scott Warheit. I collected campaign literature from each. Kyle is for a “robust local economy.” Michael is for “prosperity.” Scott is for “smart growth.” All three want to promote economic growth locally, and expect a general economic recovery to help restore property values and thus city revenues. And it is not just these three candidates, of course. Practically everyone at the Saturday meeting seemed to expect that today’s tough times are temporary, and economic growth is the normal condition we can get back to with the right balance of policies. This is conventional (and obsolete) thinking.

If prosperity does actually return, then today’s temporary problems are solved. However, neither prosperity nor property values can be controlled by local governments. Prosperity and property values also seem to be beyond the effective reach of state and national governments. In that case, today’s problems are not temporary, and no candidate has a clue how to deal with them.

With the long-term decline (40 years and counting) in real wages making houses less and less affordable, and with current record low interest rates making mortgages as cheap as possible, we might reasonably expect a long-term continuing decline in property values rather than an increase. The banks are witholding a number of already foreclosed properties from the market, and there is a backlog of properties already in defalut on mortgages but not yet foreclosed. This adds up to an “overhang” of several year’s worth of existing homes that are not yet on the real estate market. As they do come on the market, they can be expected to continue to depress home prices as the foreclosures already on the market have.

The United States experienced peak oil in 1970, and peak per capita energy in 1978-79. The world passed peak oil around 2006, although that peak can be disputed by counting as “unconventional oil” all sorts of things that do not come out of the ground as a black liquid. Since fossil fuels provide ~85% of the energy needed to operate our industrial economy, and we are going to have less in the future than we have now, we can expect a slowing rather than a growing industrial economy. The evidence that this is happening is visible. Cascading national and bank defaults and austerity measures and foreclosures indicate that the global economy is not going to be coming to the rescue of the local economy any time soon.

The economy has been declining for several years now, with multiple indications of more to come. I believe it will be necessary for local governments (and state, and federal) to cope with declining revenues for the foreseeable future. In other words, I expect a declining economy rather than a recovering one. I do not have a better crystal ball than anyone else to predict the future, but at a minimum, there is a reasonable case to be made that continuing declines in the global, national and state economy are a strong possibility. I don’t see any candidates who recognize the necessity of planning for this possibility.

Stimulating the economy is not the legitimate business of government at any level. The welfare of ordinary citizens, including but not limited to functioning public safety organizations, is the business of government whether the economy is growing or declining. If political leaders cannot plan for the possibility of decline, and the decline happens regardless of all wishes to the contrary, then governments don’t work and the public has to be disappointed in incompetent officeholders promising a future that does not arrive. That’s what we are seeing now, and I expect we will see more in the near future.

As individuals, the candidates seem to be decent enough people, and well-intentioned so far as I can tell. However, I know I’m right about declining energy (per capita, gross and net). I’m pretty sure about the effect this has on the economy. Therefore, I’m pretty sure that these candidates, and a whole lot of others, and pretty much the entire voting public that has some faith in whoever does get elected, is going to be blindsided by the unstoppable decline of the industrial economy.

I understand that “plan for a declining economy” is not a happy message, and that any candidate who discusses it can be attacked by his/her opponent as though they want to create a declining economy or for giving up hope of improvement. Maybe that does mean the candidate who promises to overcome all obstacles will win the election. If I’m right the winner will be stuck representing a government that does not function, failing to deliver on campaign promises, and making all the issues of a declining economy worse than they have to be. That, to me, is not something worth winning. I’d rather back an honest candidate who is right on these issues (if I can find one), even if he/she loses the immediate election.

In summary, we actually have a declining economy. We do not have candidates who admit it, let alone realistic ideas on how we might cope with it. Until we do, we will see continuing failure of government at every level, and increasing dissatisfaction with these failed governments. This is what explains “Tea Party” rage, though the simple-minded and contradictory principles of Tea Party leaders are absurd and will be as much a disaster if they actually take power as the Communist Party was in Russia. It explains working class and middle class disappointment in Obama and in Democrats generally. It explains declining interest in elections generally, and increasing disappointment with the results.

Art Myatt