Whatever Happened to 'The Vision Thing'? Part II

Vision - Lake Superior.jpg

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.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Oh for Pete's Sake America: listen up

Your article sounds the bell of truth. Please listen America.

Flying cars may someday happen but each step into the future changes our lives in ways never imagined. The affects of the computer evolution has eliminated many blue collar jobs and closed many businesses. Many jobs were also outsourced in a short period of time. Health care costs continue to rise, increasing immigration, the cost of war, terrorism, education, fuel and food have left many wondering if we even have a future. We must focus on creating new jobs so we can hunker down and move forward. We need to restart our real estate engine or find a mechanic. We have not addressed these issues currently crippling America.

Political backbiting, corruption, and party polarization have turned our nation to stagnation. Many of our dreams have turned to foreclosures. We need job opportunities to rebuild our lives.

It would be nice if we could take a step back to the thriving economy we recently enjoyed. We cannot. We must move forward through new approaches to the new problems we face as a nation. Then we can dream once again.

Vision II

Vision is a matter of perspective. Years ago in a field hunting arrowheads with my brother we came across a smooth oblong stone about 12” long. I saw a large stone, but my brother picked it up and hauled it around in his pack the rest of the day. A year later while visiting him I looked down to see that with a few strokes of a chisel my brother had created a sleeping dog curled up in what I had only seen as a stone.
The question is: are our leaders and we as a nation only seeing the stone? Is our vision only that which we see in front of us? I agree with Mr. Smirniotopoulous that we need a deeper vision for our future. His insight into the many problems we have faced and are facing are right on the mark. He, and many of us, have been disheartened because of the lack of consistent actions relative to the vision our president carried into office.
I’m hoping that President Obama’s first term has been his stone. It has been heavy, but one for which he still has a vision. I’m hoping we are just seeing the stone and in time we see that he makes something of it. Unlike my brothers’ vision though, I hope it isn’t to let sleeping dogs lie.

Mr. Smirniotopoulos

Mr. Smirniotopoulos conveys a very important message. How do we shape the America that we once were and how do we do it with partisan politics? Politicians fighting each other rather than concentrating on what is important for the U.S.: come up with a plan. This article is on point from a very intelligent and keen observer of government, politics, and society. Where is the pride, fairness, morals and justice that made our country special? Perhaps on Thursday night President Obama will give us as clear a message as this very well written article.

Nice Article

Nice article, Peter. As you stated, I think that we as a nation need to start concentrating at being the best at what we do. This concept of American exceptionalism is being lost within the political leadership in Washington, DC. Instead, we see so-called leaders who seem to be interested in focusing us into losing our national identity. We do need to be involved in either building things or being the best at developing the processes and technology to build things.

Kudos to you, Peter, for saying what needs to be said.

So true . . .

As we celebrate Labor Day, I wonder how many of us even understand the underlying meaning for the day. Our priorities are skewed, we care more about what celebrities do than what truly WILL affect our own lives. People need to wake up and realize that isn't party vs. party, it's country before party.

Well written, thought provoking. I will definitely be sharing this article to my friends who are also frustrated and embittered by the conditions within this country.

Thank you.

Heart to Heart

I like that you encourage us to search our own hearts and find what is best for all of us there.

Thank you.

so true Peter

I remember those very pictures from youth of our budding future. I believed we would fly with back packs that would glide us up and away. Same with life-up and away to a brighter day. A leadership respected by all. Revered, not the constant tripping each side up just because.
I remember as kids it did not matter who was president-he was your president. You did not bash that American, you tried to believe in him. Now we see God pulled into the side called the "right" (no coincidence there) and the left-called "liberals" although they usually are conserving the planet and making decisions like health care that yes I believe even Jesus might have voted for-a real no brainer there. Eisebhower would roll in his grave to see where the Tea Party has come from and Martin Luther King would have to be at least a bit proud, yet dismayed over the constant pushing and shoving that blurs any outcome.
No one is perfect, yet todays voter is fickle they want immediate results, REality shows reflect a society of a faux lifestyle and true belief and understanding a thing of dreams once believed.
Thanks for your article, I think you bring a truism of what should or could have been to memory. I lament the what ifs in this case and hope this society of brittle perceptions becomes more cohesive, more willing to support our leaders , not put up with others tripping their vision along the way to only wonder why they do fall. If we keep up these disturbing allowances in politics we will keep loosing the could have beens-EC


Peter, the following is a blog entry I did some months ago. There are some interesting similarities in our frames of reference. As an artist I probably approach my subjects in a more visceral fashion, and you, more intellectually. Your article is superb and, as usual, on the mark :

Guernica is Pablo Picasso’s interpretation of war. It was painted in response to the bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War. It is black, white, and gray but perhaps it should be red like blood and green like money – these are the real colors of war. All countries, but particularly America, glorify war. In America it has become a video game where death is not real and winning is penultimate. There are no good wars! Sure you can justify some of them, like WWII but there was no nobility in our participation – we needed to boost the economy and pry ourselves loose from the Depression and it worked, and it only cost a few million lives. Ask anyone who fought in that war if it was good. George W. Bush, a life long failure at everything, even managed to wreck the economy while fighting 2 wars. Perhaps his friends at Halliburton were a bit too greedy and the benefits of war didn’t trickle down to the rest of us. My God, even Viet Nam turned a profit. I am a child of the Fifties, a boomer. We were taught that the world was a wondrous place, that our superior technology and intelligence would free us from the horrors of war and the drudgery of work. Where are the hover cars, the milk and honey, the world at peace? Is it really just about greed? Are we forever condemned to repeat the past? America must change or it will die (Rome comes to mind) but this isn’t the 18th century, a few tea parties will not free us from oppression. We are rapidly becoming too dumb to deserve democracy. What will save America, if anything, is intelligence, education and dreams. We the people have to be prepared to save ourselves despite the government, the corporations, the radical fringe. How do we do this? I haven’t a clue. The tenets of Christianity, love thy neighbor, etc. (unless he’s brown) haven’t worked, the wisdom of the ages hasn’t worked, the good intentions of good men have not worked. Perhaps we need a war, one that will obliterate all of mankind, so we can climb out of the primordial sludge and start all over again but I fear Darwin’s theory (reality) of the survival of the fittest will again rear its ugly head and war will reemerge as the only thing all men have in common. Unless…….

Peter, couldn't agree more

Peter, couldn't agree more with your concluding two paragraphs, but I don't agree it's a vision, or lack thereof, thing. We are polarized because people will not take the time to sit down and listen to each other... they shout, they scream, they accuse, they name call, they have zero respect for people, and it's all for public consumption. Members of congress do it, talking heads do it, people on facebook do it. You can't be a socially liberally without the far right accusing you of being a baby killer. You can't be fiscally conservative without the far left calling you a uncaring racist. Obama is a lying, un-American socialist, Bush is a lying, war-monging idiot. TEA Party members/supporters are Jihadists and Rethuglicans. No wonder there's no shared vision... it's because there's no respect for the other guy's opinion.

Vision vs. Action

It's hard to balance vision with action. We need both, and we're not getting it.

Politicians tend to get elected on vision, because it's easier to put words together that sound great and get people excited. When it comes to action, well, we aren't getting the follow-through.

Peter, you articulated the country's needs -- and shortfalls -- very well. I'm disheartened and exhausted by our elected officials' insistence on continuing to support issues that have nothing to do with the best interests of the people. We're crumbling in slo-mo and it seems the best we can expect from adults is the kind of behavior we don't tolerate from small children.