The great economic boom times in American history have come because of fortuitous discoveries, acts of god if you like. Natural resources (coal first, then oil) fueled vast economic and industrial expansions, which in turn helped create and supply new markets. The last genuine economic game changer was the technology boom of the 1990s, which gave the U.S. a global competitive advantage for a while based on electronics and silicon. One of the first writers and analysts in the U.S. to predict that the tech boom would lead to a period of sustained economic growth was Charles Morris. In defiance of the recessionary times (in 1990), he saw the coming boom. Now, in 2013, he sees the threshold of another.
This time the gift is natural gas. The amount and distribution of gas in American shale is so vast that it has the potential to transform the manufacturing economy, creating jobs across the country from California to Pittsburgh, and requiring a new infrastructure that will benefit the nation as a whole. Because of fracking, jobs that once would have been outsourced abroad will return home, America can become a net exporter of energy, and cheap energy will provide the opportunity for innovation and competition. America can anticipate being energy independent within a decade, and remain so for a century. The International Energy Institute was forced to tear up its estimates for the U.S.’s energy capacity, so profound is the potential and scale of gas.
Supported by other complementary factors, the U.S. ought to be approaching the future with a robust self-confidence it has not experienced in a while. But we have a political system that has the capacity to spoil the benefits of this huge boon. If the wealth locked in the continental shelf is not shared for the general economic good, but is instead exploited in short-term profiteering, then many of the opportunities that exist will be choked off by a few very rich corporations. Managing the great bonus of the vast store of cheap energy is going to become a defining political challenge in the years ahead.