America Doesn’t Plan for the Future

The other disturbing trend has been building slowly since the 1980s.  It is a “dumb as we wanna be” mood that has overtaken our political elite, a mood that says we can indulge in petty red state-blue state cat fights for as long as we want and can postpone shoring up our health care system and our crumbling infrastructure, postpone addressing immigration reform, postpone fixing Social Security and Medicare, and postpone dealing comprehensively with our energy excesses and insecurity indefenitely.  The prevailing attitude on so many key issues in Washington today is “we’ll get to it when we feel like getting to it and it will never catch up to us, because we’re America.”    

–    Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded

I was rereading the beginning of Hot, Flat and Crowded today when this passage caught my attention.  It summed up my feelings about our government for awhile now, but even more so now since the financial crisis.  Our government is simply not planning for the future and I’m not sure what we can really do about it.

Government has done little, or nothing, to address energy independence, social security, a sprawling, complex tax code, healthcare, infrastructure, over crowded prisons, underachieving school and job creation.  Instead, government has focused on abortion, illegal drugs, same sex marriage, online sports gambling, online poker, steroids in baseball and short term fixes to America’s major problems.

Both parties, and the system as a whole, are to blame.  First, gerrymandering has robbed America of many competitive election fights, leading to more partisan politicians getting into office, at the expense of moderates who would be more willing to compromise.  Second, the political class has to raise money to continue to be elected.  With the rise of lobbyists, our elected officials face an ever increasing temptation to accept contributions in exchange for influence.  The constant election cycle hurts our political process.  Third, it seems fewer smart people are going into politics.  When the founding fathers were writing the constitution, they were some of the smartest people in the world.  The founding fathers would be ashamed to be compared to today’s political class.  Fourth, the constant campaigning and fundraising pushes elected officials to work on “flavor of the month” and divisive projects, rather than working toward large, long term goals.  Lawmakers who work toward big goals may be thrown out of office by their constituents for not being liberal or conservative enough (ie, working across the aisle on a big issue). 

Its gotten so bad that I wouldn’t trust 95% of politicians, Republican or Democrat, to run a gas station for two years, much less our entire government.  The “dumb as we wanna be attitude” is a symptom of the disease I outlined above.  American politicians think in 2-6 year time frames.  The major problems facing America today cannot be dealt with that quickly.  They require multi-decade approaches that combine government, private business and ordinary citizens.

An example of the dumb as we wanna be attitude is the government’s response to the financial crisis.  The financial crisis was caused by excess leverage by banks, homeowners and consumers.  People were living beyond their means.  The government’s response (both Bush and Obama)?  Start the printing presses and borrow more money.  We are simply exchanging one form of leverage for another.  As I wrote a month ago, I am worried about the US dollar and America’s standard of living.  I believe that our short term approach to avoid any further pain will only worsen the pain in the future.  It does not make logical sense for our government to do what it is doing, expect to make sure that it gets elected again.  We are being as dumb as we wanna be.

An item becomes less valuable as it becomes available in greater quantities, no matter what the item is.  This statement holds true for dollars, just as it does for doughnuts.  It is not logical to think that the US can simply print its way out of massive debts, yet that is the path that the US in on.  I believe we are on that path because its the easy road and the politicians want to make sure they continue to be elected. 

Contrast America’s approach over the last two decades to that of China.  The Chinese government, unlike their American counterpart, thinks in terms of decades, not single years.  For example, in the 1990s, Deng Xiopeng set a goal to make China the leading producer of rare earth metals, the valuable metals used in most high tech products including solar panels, microchips, high capacity batteries and many more.  In 2009, China succeeded.  It now controls 95% of the world’s supply of these valuable metals and have imposed strict export quotas so that industry is forced to move to China.  This is not to say that we should follow the Chinese model, as the ends do not always justify the means, but I believe we can learn a lot of China.  They have lived within their means, saved money and invested it wisely.  China is being rewarded for it now, while the US is being punished.

I’m not really sure what we can do to get our politicians to focus on the big, multi-decade projects that are important to our country’s future.  The only thing I can think of is to educate the voters and demand action on big projects, rather than quick fixes.  Reward congressmen for spending 2 years on fixing social security, not sending pork barrel projects home to the districts.  We are America, but the world is catching up.  I fear they will have caught up because we are falling at the same time they are rising, not because they are rising faster than we are.  I wish there was an easy button, but sadly, there isn’t.  What do you think?


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