Samuelson: Why we don’t prepare for the future

Monday, Sept. 10, 2018 5:11 PM
Robert Samuelson

WASHINGTON – More than 20 years ago, I wrote that Americans would solve their most pressing problems through either consensus or crisis.

We would debate the country’s controversial issues until we reached agreements that, though not fully satisfying to everyone, would enjoy grudging majority support. If consensus failed, we would wait for some crisis – ill-defined and disruptive – to force us to do what we don’t want to do.

The jury, I think, is in: We’re relying on crises. We hope that they don’t occur and pretend that they’re not inevitable, whatever they might be.

As a society, we’ve failed to confront some of the major social, political and economic realities of our time: immigration, globalization, health spending, global warming, federal budget deficits, the aging of society and stubborn poverty, among others.

What almost all of these issues have in common is that the remedies they suggest are unpleasant. They demand, in the political vernacular, “sacrifice.”

To close federal budget deficits, taxes must go up and spending must come down. To deal with an aging society, people must work longer. (Also, eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare must rise and benefits for the affluent elderly fall.) To resist global warming, fossil-fuel prices must go up, either through taxes or regulations.

The paradox is this: Although many of these measures would, initially at least, involve a loss of income for individuals, the country would be better off, because we would have responded collectively to collective threats.

It is also true that, on paper at least, some problems are amenable to compromise. Take immigration. The bargain that could be struck has long been clear: Most of today’s roughly 11 million “illegal” immigrants would be granted legal status; in return, border security (yes, including the dreaded “wall”) would be strengthened, and legal immigration would be overhauled to emphasize skills, not family ties.

Had some of these problems been tackled years ago – when they were already evident – the needed changes would have been modest. But time was squandered, and manageable issues became less so, federal budget deficits being a case in point.

As estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, today’s deficits are approaching $1 trillion, which (if closed entirely through taxes) would require tax increases of about 30 percent, or (if closed entirely by spending cuts) would reduce spending by about 25 percent. There is no gentle way to do this.

People, including some readers of this column, clamor for “solutions.” We need to “fix” this problem or that, it’s said. But some problems have no solutions, only better and worse ways of dealing with imperfection.

Consider: Curing poverty has eluded us for decades, despite trillions of dollars of anti-poverty spending. Health care is frustrating, because most Americans regard it as an open-ended “right” whose spending should somehow not be open-ended. Eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions is difficult, perhaps impossible, because four-fifths of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas).

Rather than tangle with these complications, our political leaders have preferred procrastination to action. They create agendas that they know are anathema to their adversaries, prompting each side to vilify the other. Politics focuses increasingly on “keeping your base happy,” as opposed to governing. The seeds of stalemate are planted. Political theater triumphs over policy. Nastiness and polarization increase. Congressional Republicans and Democrats vote along party lines, making bipartisan support for major measures impossible. Politicians revert to familiar behaviors. Democrats create new entitlements (aka the Affordable Care Act), Republicans cut taxes.

President Donald Trump is the logical conclusion of these tendencies. With his tweets, he has devalued political discourse and aggressively divided, rather than unified, voters.

There is a larger point. Democracies, it turns out, are creatures of the present because the public focuses on the here and now, not some future, hypothetical problem. To be fair, all these tendencies predated Trump’s election – and will, almost certainly, survive his leaving.

Our political system makes us vulnerable to distant crises because we don’t try to anticipate and defuse them. Just what kind of crisis is hard to know. A financial crisis – not unlike the 2008-09 financial collapse – seems plausible. Other possibilities: war, pandemics and cyberattacks, to mention a few.

There is one common denominator: We lose some control over our future.

Robert Samuelson is a columnist for The Washington Post. © 2018 The Washington Post Writers Group