Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Twenty Years Lost

In 1776, the population of the United States was 2.5 million. Out of that tiny human reservoir emerged the figures of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and all the rest of the founding fathers. The supply of quality leaders and thinkers seemed without limit. By 1865 and the end of the Civil War, the U.S. population had grown to 7 million. From that somewhat-larger talent pool came Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass. Men of integrity and intellect still seemed to be available for public service back in the year,1865, and there was reason to think that the trend would continue throughout the life of the country. Today, our country’s population is approaching 300 million. And what do we have to show for this huge increase in numbers from which to draw the best and the brightest? Two pathetic decades of The Bush family, Dick Cheney and the Clinton family.

The founding fathers and the other iconic leaders in the past were characterized, not just by the greatness of their achievements, but also by the sense of urgency which they attached to those achievements. Our early presidents and legislators didn’t wait until the mid-nineteenth century to draft the United States Constitution. Abraham Lincoln didn’t satisfy himself with just marking time during the American Civil War so that he could pass it off to the next president. The sorry fact, however, is that even these great men from the past would not be up to the task of solving today’s problems. But it’s tantalizing to imagine what they might have done twenty years ago.

Dependence on petroleum energy from abroad. Climate change from massive CO2 emissions, mostly from sources in the U.S.A. Southern border immigration which now is almost unstoppable. A healthcare system now ranked #37 in the world at providing good health. A national image around the world that inspires utter disgust, not for American citizens, but for American government. And finally, a Social Security system that may not survive for future generations. These problems are so intractable that I actually pity the next president who will inherit them. Whether it’s McCain or Obama is irrelevant. Either one represents a welcome change from the last twenty years, but neither one can do much of anything about the problems which have languished since the Reagan administration.

Here’s the sadness. Many, if not all, of the problems were identified twenty years ago, and much could have been done to at least start on viable solutions back then. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that none of the problems seem to have a curve of deterioration that’s linear. Instead, most of the problems are characterized by a threshold, or “tipping point” as it’s now called, and in some of the cases, that threshold has already been crossed. Quite simply, for some of the problems it’s too late for solutions, and we can thank our last three presidents for getting us to this point. They approached their job like a teenager flipping burgers. The just wanted to hold on until closing time without getting fired.

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