Americans have always been, in many respects, an optimistic and forward-looking people. Ours, happily, is not a nation overly obsessed with settling old international scores and grudges or constantly addressing perceived slights from past adversaries.
One flip side to this admirable tendency, however, is what frequently amounts to a short collective memory. An especially noteworthy example in this realm is the maddening amnesia that afflicts us when it comes to two essential components of societal success: intentional public solutions and collective sacrifice.
Time and again, many Americans repeatedly forget what enabled the nation to overcome so many challenges of the past – from electrifying rural America to defeating fascism to landing a human on the moon: pulling together, fashioning an intentional plan of action, marshaling the necessary resources, and getting down to work.
This vexing forgetfulness has been on regular and painful display in recent years. Indeed, we saw it play out just last week in Texas where a stubborn refusal to embrace planning, common sense regulations and cooperation in the name of “competition” and the “genius of the market” helped contribute to a disastrous meltdown of the state’s power grid during a massive winter storm.
As a University of Houston energy policy expert told The New York Times, “Deregulation was something akin to abolishing the speed limit on an interstate highway. That opens up shortcuts that cause disasters.”
In other words, it’s fine to spout macho platitudes about the threat to “freedom” posed by “gummint bureaucrats,” “high taxes” and “burdensome regulations,” but such talk rings pretty darned hollow when you’re reduced to burning furniture to stay warm and melting snow to have enough water to drink.
And, of course, we don’t have to look 1,000 miles to the southwest to see this kind of catastrophic and preventable breakdown. Most of us continue to live it every day nearly 12 months into a health pandemic that has killed a half-million Americans and rendered us prisoners in our homes for want of a truly first-rate national public health infrastructure.
While it seems improbable that even the best imaginable national response could have stopped the coronavirus pandemic last February, there is also no doubt that the pathetically inadequate response we have witnessed was rooted in the near-pathological opposition to intentional public solutions (and the taxes that pay for them) that has afflicted our leaders.
And so it goes in area after area.
Even now, a year into the pandemic and with $5 billion in available surplus funds, North Carolina Republican legislative leaders would order schools to reopen, but can’t bring themselves to provide for the kinds of minimal health and safety tools – like adequate facilities with decent HVAC systems and a nurse in every school – that should have been in place years ago.
Or consider the broader issue of children’s health. For years, experts at the advocacy group NC Child have detailed precisely where our state is failing – multiple “D’s” actually fell to “F’s in the most recent report – and identified the solutions that would allow us to protect and nurture our state’s most precious treasure.
Legislative leaders, meanwhile, have effectively ignored the entire issue.
And then, most ominously, there is the environmental emergency that confronts our state, nation and, indeed, all of humanity. Never has the globe faced such a dire and existential threat demanding more urgent and aggressive collective action.
At such a moment, who in their right mind can imagine that the solution to the crisis lies in maximizing dog-eat-dog competition so that each of the planet’s 8 billion inhabitants works first and foremost to maximize their own individual near-term comfort and wealth?
What possible good will it do anyone to pay 2% or 5% or 10% lower taxes if the world that results is ever more stressed, turbulent, divided and uninhabitable?
Freedom – the enduring kind that comes from an absence of fear and the knowledge that one’s children and grandchildren will be able to pursue their dreams – clearly depends on a commitment to plan, construct and maintain the human and physical infrastructure necessary to sustain a healthy human society and planet.
Yes, we must vigilantly combat government overreach that would infringe upon civil rights and liberties – not to mention the inevitable waste and graft that plagues all large human institutions, both public and private.
Eighty years ago, Congress ended up devoting large amounts of its time to exposing war profiteering and corruption, but it didn’t stop waging World War II because some humans, as is always the case, behaved badly. Indeed, at this challenging moment, the memory-challenged Americans of 2021 would do well to reflect on this lesson.
Public structures and solutions may be imperfect, but if we can’t adequately support and rely upon them to respond to the crises that we confront, and use them to intentionally fashion a sustainable, healthy and more equitable world, no amount of forward-looking optimism will be sufficient to save us.