More than two years ago (March 2009, to be precise), New Geography published an article I wrote, entitled Whatever Happened to ‘The Vision Thing'?. It began:
When I was in elementary school, I remember reading about the remarkable transformations that the future would bring: Flying cars, manned colonies on the moon, humanoid robotic servants. Almost half a century later, none of these promises of the future – and many, many more – have come to pass. Yet, in many respects, these visions from the future served their purpose in allowing us to imagine a world far more wondrous than the one we were in at the time, to aspire to something greater.
I am reminded of these early childhood memories not because I lament the loss of my flying car (although it would come in handy every now-and-again in fighting the Washington, D.C. rush hour gridlock) but because, with all of the rhetoric about change and hope, the Obama Administration has failed to articulate a strong, singular vision for what the future of America and the world can and should be. While some would argue that now is not the time for grand visions for the future but, rather, for hunkering down and muddling through these desperate economic travails, the fact of the matter is that at least part of the cause of continuing economic decline in this country, and in many other developed nations as well, is a lack of confidence in the future.
I am now deeply troubled, as I always am when I have had such an epiphany, to report that clearly no one listened to me. As of August 2011, fourteen months away from what promises to be perhaps the most polarizing Presidential election in our Nation’s history, we are farther away than we have ever been from having a shared national vision for the future of our country.
The current crises impacting the United States — record-high, persistent unemployment; a potentially ruinous national debt as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product; extreme volatility in the equity markets; a growing gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots”; etc.; etc; etc.— are as much reflective of a crisis of confidence as they are of structural problems with our economy. And the increasingly toxic discourse between opposing factions within Congress, fueled by pundits and talking heads on cable news programs, talk radio, and the blogosphere, is in part a reflection of the axiom that nature abhors a vacuum. However, everyone is talking about treating the symptomology rather than making the patient better. No one wants to acknowledge the elephant in the room: That we are wandering aimlessly through an increasingly competitive world economy.
So, what do we want to be when we grow up, America? We are, hopefully, coming out of the downside of an unsustainable economic model, premised on unrelenting, annual growth in the value of all asset classes, which fueled unfettered consumer behavior (“consumer confidence on steroids,” one could argue), and the misguided belief that we are and will always be the greatest nation on earth no matter what. Consequently, we need to decide what kind of America we envision for our future.
We used to be builders of things, and did that better than any other industrialized democracy. Now we have to compete with the manufacturing juggernaut that is China, unfettered by our democratic and human rights principles and the inherent limitations of a free, capitalistic society. We want to maintain what is still (at least arguably) the highest standard of living in the world, but we don’t want to pay for it through the price of goods produced on our own shores. We are clinging for dear life to the outdated notion that we can enjoy inexpensive goods made by people who live on one-tenth or less what the average American earns, and still continue to have job and income growth. So we need to make the transition from being the largest consumer of goods in the world to once again being a country that does things; big things. The question is: What things? I guess if I could answer that question, I’d appear in an incredibly unflattering picture on the cover of Time magazine right now. But I can at least pose it.
The political arguments that were brought into sharp focus in the debates over the federal budget and raising the debt ceiling might have perhaps brought more light than heat to bear on our economic problems had they been conducted within the framework of how our future as a nation should be shaped. The appropriate size of the federal government, for example, can only be reasonably determined once we’ve agreed as a nation about what role we want government to play in shaping our future.
Runaway capitalism — which conferred benefits very selectively, albeit very handsomely, on a small percentage of our population—has proven to be both a very destructive force (e.g. the mortgage meltdown; the Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster; etc.), as well as one that requires governmental intervention when it goes awry (e.g. the TARP program; the Federal Reserve Bank’s interventions in the marketplace; various federal foreclosure prevention programs; the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; etc.; etc.; etc. ad nauseum). Absent such a framework for the future, the national debate has been the victim of an increasingly acute form of intellectual paralysis: The short-term mindsets of our elected officials and the voters — tied to the two-year election cycle — force debate on inherently inadequate, short-term solutions to substantial, long-term problems. Because we have no shared vision of the country’s future, against which short-term solutions might be measured, there are no metrics for productive discourse. Hence, our so-called “leaders” argue in reliance on their “principles,” rather than with a broader view toward implementing the future we want to see.
Things will only continue to grow worse, and much more polarized (although that’s truly frightening to imagine), unless and until we agree, as a nation, that there are some fundamental issues about our future that need to be addressed… and resolved. Creating jobs in a vacuum is a fool’s errand; so is cutting spending on existing programs when we should be deciding what kind of programs we want and need. The appropriate size of the federal government, how much money needs to be raised in terms of revenue (and from whom), and how those revenues should be efficiently spent, can only be determined with certitude in the context of where we want to go — and how we want to grow — from here.
I no longer harbor any quixotic notions, as I did two-and-a-half years ago, about the President stepping forward to articulate a bold vision for America’s future: But somebody sure needs to … and soon.
Photo by Severin St. Martin(Sev!): "Kes has a Vision"; North Shore, Lake Superior
Peter Smirniotopoulos is a national expert in urban redevelopment, housing policy, and project and public finance. He is the founder and principal of petersgroup consulting, a real estate development and finance consulting practice based in the Washington, D.C. area, which serves the public, private, and non-profit sectors throughout the U.S. He is a former Faculty Member in the Masters of Science in Real Estate program at Johns Hopkins University.