Let’s consider our current state of affairs. We have an enormous deficit. We have a serious terrorism problem. Our social safety net is under great strain and programs like medicare, medicaid and social security are in jeapordy. Our defense budget and our current wars are plunging us deeper and deeper into debt. The wealth gap between rich and poor is growing. The middle class is shrinking and wages have been flat for 40 years. We are on the brink of a global crisis as the result of global climate change. I’m sure there are more very serious issues we are facing, but you get the point.
What is it about all of these things that is so troubling? Is it the views of the extreme right? Is it the views of the left? Is it the shear enormity of any one of these problems? I would argue that the most troubling element about each of the problems we face is that we know the answer to each of these problems. It’s that we have known about these problems, in some case for decades but we have done nothing. It’s that we have very reliable data, very reliable information we could be using to address these issues, but in large measure we ignore it.
We find ourselves in these dire straits not because of ignorance, but because of willful ignorance. We can’t, we won’t and we don’t engage in real conversations about reality. I’ll say it again, the most troubling thing about each of these issues is that we know about them, we know about the problem, we know the solutions, yet we do nothing.
Let’s take a few examples. In the case of our social safety net, we hear republicans arguing that in order to save the country we must cut medicare, medicaid and social security. However, the problems with these programs involves one or both of the following factors, the aging of the baby-boomer generation and the rising costs of healthcare. We know this, We’ve known this for decades. It’s not difficult to look at the largest generation in our nation’s history and recognize that when they retire it will be a huge strain on programs like social security. Yet the Bush administration took the budget surplus it had received and squandered it on tax cuts for the rich now, rather than shoring up the nation for the impending wave of demand presented by retiring baby-boomers to come later.
Similarly, we have a defense budget that has increased almost 81% since 2001. We spend 6 times more on defense than the next closest nation, China. We spend more than China, UK, France, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Italy combined. We have not had a serious national foe since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. We know this, we have known this. I’m not arguing that we don’t need a strong defense, but do we need to be spending this much when we have no foes of a comparable size? For the money we do spend, should we be spending it on cold war era weapons systems when the threat that faces us is terrorism?
We’ve known that terrorism was on the rise since the 1980s. As the threat has grown we have not responded in kind. We did not develop intelligence on the ground. We did not enact policies that would diplomatically and economically minimize the factors that contribute to terror recruitment. We simply waited until 9/11 told us we could wait no more. Yet in many ways, 10 years after 9/11 we have yet to engage in fighting terror in all of the ways we know we should. We’ve spent a lot of money on wars, we’ve spent a lot of money on the Department of Homeland Security, but one only needs to go through airport security or consider the freight entering our ports, or consider budget cuts to the Office of Nuclear Energy to see that perhaps even now we have not taken terrorism seriously enough.
Then there is the deficit. Much of our deficit is directly linked to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the costs of the wars. We knew and we know that tax rates are historically low. We knew and we know that the income and wealth gains by the richest Americans are at historically high points, rivaled only in the years leading to the great depression. Then there are the wars. We knew and we know that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. We knew these things yet we still started a war that will cost us on the order of $3 Trillion or more. At the same time we took the historically unprecedented action of enacting tax cuts at a time of war. The deficit exploded and continues to grow yet we do nothing.
We also know that the middle class is shrinking. We know that middle class wages have been flat for 40 years. We know that the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is increasing. Yet, we enact policies that we know don’t produce the results we need. We cut middle class programs, we fight against healthcare reform, we give more money to the wealthy, the whole time knowing that the middle class has been slowly dying for 40 years.
We know that global climate change is happening. We have known about it for decades. When you hear scientists talk about it, they discuss it with the same certainty as gravity. We know it is happening. We know it can and will have very real and very serious economic impact on our nation and the world. Yet we turn a blind eye and enact policies that deny what we already know. Each year we wait, the problem grows worse, the solution grows more expensive and the impact on industry grows more serious. Yet we do nothing.
Then there is the financial crisis. We had warnings from many inside and outside of government. We knew that the mortgage market was a house of cards. We knew that the unregulated derivatives market could drive us off of a cliff. What’s more those in the financial sector knew what they were doing. Even if we want to give the benefit of the doubt to government and to regulators and to investors, the financial sector was knowingly and intentionally engaging in these practices. It purposefully created these instruments to maximize it’s profits. If we as a nation did not know what was happening then, we now know what happened. Yet we do nothing, and in doing so we set the stage for the next great crash that will surely be just a few years down the road.
Merriam-Webster defines a leader as “a person who leads.” They go on to define “lead” as “to guide on a way especially by going in advance.” A leader then would be a person who guides us by going in advance. They look to the future. They take us to where we need to be before we are aware of where we need to go. Leaders make the case. They inform. They teach. They challenge us to clear the next hurdle not run straight into it while denying the burning pain of the collision.
Pick your reason as to why leadership on both sides of the political spectrum has failed for decades. The fact remains that not only are we failing to lead by going in advance, in many cases we aren’t even leading from behind. To not know about a problem or an outcome and then fail to make a decision is an honest mistake. But when we know the problem exists and we ignore it, when we know a solution is anything but, we do our nation, and in some cases the world, a great disservice bordering on immorality.
The left and the right can and will disagree on solutions, but we can not deny the problems we know. We can not ignore problems that we can plainly see. If we are to solve these problems we have to be able to discuss the facts, we must be able to acknowledge that they actually exist. Political rancor and ideology not only prevent us from finding the best solutions, but often prevent us from finding any solution. In many cases we don’t even have the conversation.
If we fail to solve problems let it be because of honest mistakes. Failure simply because we refused to act on the problems we know to be is unconscionable. We are the first generation that likely will not do better than our parents. The question for us is whether or not we will be the first generation who knows it is happening and fails to lead our nation to a brighter future for our children.