Understanding limitations and how to deal with them responsibly is at the heart of achieving an enlightened, judicious, and sustainable society that adapts well to ever-changing circumstances.
Those of us who promote sustainability in public policy are continually reminded of limits – regulatory funding, environmental health and capacity, political support for green energy, etc. But due to widely reported constraints for recovering from our brutal economic slump, it is only recently that the general public has recognized the need to confront the reality of limitations.
America’s history has been marked by pride in our optimism and self-sufficiency, often verging on reckless bravado, largely based on promoting boundless economic growth. Rising expectations have been cultivated among the young, who were assured that better-paying jobs, improved technology, and the competitive entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism would generate evermore wealth and economic opportunities – despite the biological and physical limitations of “spaceship earth.”
These themes became the rhetorical dogma of political speeches for so long that many Americans came to believe our nation was invincible, able to defy all constraints that hamstrung progress in other countries. Any U.S. candidate openly daring to question such beliefs was unelectable. Legislation intended to correct problems caused by implicit vulnerabilities was often defeated, weakly implemented, or veiled in the guise of more acceptable purposes.
Now we face the ominous plausibility of irreversible national decline brought by prolonged wars and tax-cuts that we could not afford, global trade agreements and tax policies that placed corporate profits above the welfare of our citizens, and willful negligence of under-regulated financial institutions that viewed rampant speculation as a legitimate means of wealth creation. As a result, the U.S. presently staggers under the burden of a reality we are forced to reckon with, made even worse by our belated recognition of it.
The central question in confronting this harsh reality is whether we as a people are capable of determining our true self-interest and taking timely, strategic steps to act upon it effectively. Recent political trends suggest a contrary shift to even more reckless delusion, creating disruptive barriers to consensus at a time when we can least afford them.
As part of this delusion, blame is too often placed where it doesn’t belong. Immigration policy is attacked while unprecedented corporate profits are taxed at record-low rates (if at all), and bailed-out banks are flush with tax-payer enhanced capital, as small businesses and homeowners plummet into bankruptcy at rates not seen since the Great Depression.
Major industries that are among the largest profit-makers include irresponsible polluters and market manipulators, such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, coal and oil, which are doggedly defended against justifiable regulation and elimination of government subsidies, while worthy competitors are dismissed as impractical and starved for funding.
Above all, government is often treated with contempt, especially in areas of activity where public programs are most vitally needed. Evidently, many Americans would rather suffer inferior infrastructure, healthcare, and education programs than see government provide needed improvements.
A false and deeply misguiding pride in a perverse sense of “liberty” motivates many of our citizens to oppose the imperative to divert a small share of private wealth, gained at public expense of one kind or another, toward repairing our threadbare social fabric.
Evidence contradicting foolhardy devotion to American “self-reliance” is quite clear: Concentration of wealth among the very rich does not create proportionate employment opportunities, just as surely as public expenditures are indispensable to economic recovery when the private sector languishes. Likewise, deregulation doesn’t improve society, because irresponsible business practices invariably result, imposing hardships on the public – whether through unhealthy air and water, fraudulent pension programs and mortgages, or substandard, sometimes dangerous, products and working conditions.
National recovery depends on achieving mature recognition of our mutual inter-dependence as fellow Americans. We must overcome the dismissive rejection of government’s pivotal role in shaping our shared future – ironically, a dogmatic position often taken by those who have benefitted from public programs but deviously deny their advantages to others.
Under conditions of greater limitations – whether environmental, social, or economic – the need for well-managed governmental programs in taxing, subsidizing, regulating, and social services is more profound than ever. Ill-considered efforts to defeat a robust federal role in resolving our nation’s most profound challenges will only make them more intractable.