At a time when the U.S. is confronted with some of the most unyielding, complex and difficult problems in its history, the notions of leadership and vision loom large by virtue of their absence. In fact, a June 16, 2008, World Public Opinion poll of 20 nations comprising 60% of the world’s population, found that none of the national leaders on the world stage inspired much in the way of confidence, dubbing the results a global leadership vacuum.
Unfortunately for everyone, the evidence of that vacuum continues to accumulate unabated, no doubt compounding the difficulty and social and financial costs of ultimately coming to grips with the panoply of hard problems in need of solutions – natural disasters, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, a degraded environment, income inequality, energy and water resources, social security, Medicare and health care, to name a few.
There seems little doubt that we have arrived at a critical juncture as a nation, where leadership matters more than ever and where the continued absence of leadership seems certain to bring about irreparable damage. To be clear however, that is not to be construed as counsel to sit back and await the arrival of leadership but rather, that leadership, or the absence of it, matters greatly. And what do I mean by leadership? Just this - the capacity to anticipate the future and reflect our values as a nation; intelligence coupled with the capacity to take the long view; the humility and wisdom to seek broad counsel from its citizenry as opposed to surrounding oneself with like-minded individuals who see events through a shared ideological filter; and the bravery to act upon that vision intelligently and make difficult, and at times, unpopular choices.
How much longer can we afford to march into the future treating every happenstance reactively, as a never-ending succession of after-shocks, the price tag for which is extraordinarily high and invariably paid out of the public coffer? And where was the wisdom of the market? It seems all too clear that while markets are capable of sending timely and useful signals when appropriately overseen, a wholly unregulated and largely opaque market seems more adept at serving up one disaster after another than it is at anticipating and averting them. One need only stand in place to see and experience the outcomes first-hand (e.g., mortgage and lending meltdown, precipitous escalation of gas prices, and the state of the ‘big three’ U.S. auto manufacturers), as well as the price tag.
Our institutions reward short term thinking over the long view. Quality and service are routinely sacrificed at the altar of quarterly profit demands imposed by Wall Street and its investors. Look no further than the health care industry (see American Medical News headline of May 19, 2008, ‘Health Plans Say They’ll risk Losing Members to Protect Profit Margins’) or the rapidly declining news industry, the latest poster-child for an all too prevalent take-the-money-and-run strategy that spurns reinvestment and sacrifices quality and people in the interest of maintaining ‘market value’ until such enterprises ultimately collapse, to see the long-term affects of our short term thinking and demand for immediate and ever-larger returns. Can we really afford not to have a healthy, independent news industry in a free and self-governing society? We seek short-term ‘fixes’, rather than solutions to complex problems – drilling for additional oil as opposed to cutting our consumption while setting the stage for a more sustainable and affordable energy future; chasing risky planetary engineering schemes to patch our ailing climate system in lieu of a long-term solution..
We live in a political system where elected officials are now constantly engaged in fundraising with little or no time for legislating, where governance seems overly-preoccupied with round-the-clock polling as a proxy for leadership and vision, a system that is hugely compromised by special-interests with easy access to power (see Wash. Post article of June 25th, ‘Vital Part of Housing Bill Is Brainchild of Banks’) to the detriment of the public as a whole. Moreover, our politics tend to place loyalty to ideologies and political parties above loyalty to the broader national interests of our society and our defining covenants. We are often led to believe that intelligence and wisdom only reside within the ranks of the prevailing political party in power, and that most issues are black or white, up or down.
We have a growing and singularly pathological earnings inequality where wealth does not ‘trickle down’ and a large and ever-expanding segment of our society is relegated to working to avoid impoverishment rather than achieving a better life as part of the ‘American dream’. Extreme self-interest dominates at the expense of “We the people..” – a trend driven by a winner-take-all, ‘me’ versus ‘we’ outlook heralding a return to feudalism.
Isn’t it time for sober reflection upon who we are as a people, where we are headed and what our strategy is for re-establishing the chance for all to achieve the ‘American dream’ Perhaps we might embark on regaining our National sense of direction by establishing an ‘Advisory Committee on the Future’, staffed with individuals who represent the full spectrum of our society; people who place the concerns of the nation and the world above ideologies and special interests, a Committee endowed with political heft, and insulated insofar as possible, from forces that would otherwise seek to influence it out of self-interest. How much longer can we indulge in the illusion that we can continue in this manner without profoundly serious consequences well into the future?
Imagine instead what we could achieve in the long run: people’s ideas and values reflected in our political decisions as opposed to people as onlookers to a process governed by powerful elites; markets in the service of the nation as opposed to markets feeding on the nation; wealth percolating up; markets that place more value on reinvestment of profits than on maximizing short-term gains that are unsustainable over the long haul; building greater resiliency to natural disasters such as Katrina; more equitable wages and income; averting dangerous climate change; a more sustainable energy future and lifestyle that relies less on non-renewable fossil fuels and more on renewable and alternative forms of energy; and the same cradle-to-grave health care for all.