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.

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The Man of La Mancha

An excellently written and thought-provoking article, Peter.
I would offer as an answer, that what we want to be when we grow up, are grown-ups. And all that the term brings with it. Responsible, disciplined, good and compassionate people. Not children having tantrums.
We can have both..vision and a well-run and fiscally responsible Government. What we cannot have is fear and untruths. We cannot have or allow ignorance. We cannot have or accept anything less than a Democracy that cares for every citizen living here, anytime and every time. Mr. Obama articulated very well, and continues to try to do so, his vision for America's future. He has, quite unfortunately, lost his way battling those much larger-than-he-had-imagined windmills.

Our job..and we have one every bit as important as his..is to write him and remind him who we the people are who elected him and why. Remind him of the vision he shared that inspired and emboldened a generation of young people to go out and get the vote for the first black man in the office of the Presidency. Tell him he will have that vote again if he will be that bold knight on a wobbly horse and promise him that this time, we will ride beside him all the way and not sit on the sidelines and wring our hands and shake our heads .. we will pick up the slack and we will go to the front with him. Door to door, making phone calls, writing letters.
You write of vision and it is a grand one. Of those rockets and flying cars. My vision is of a fossil fuels-free America. Of a war-free America. Of an America insuring its citizens to health care and education and a continued and diligent devotion to the Freedom of Religion and Choice.
Keep writing, please keep writing. And I promise I will keep sharing and answering and struggling with the windmills right along side of you..and the President.

Terrific comments, Miss

Terrific comments, Miss Gray! It is easy to become discouraged with some of the compromises made by the President. I am more discouraged by the tone of our current political discourse, and with the success that the GOP has had in dumbing-down the discussion ("taxes bad"; "government regulations bad"). I agree with you - we do have an obligation to write and let the President and our other elected representatives know how we feel. We need to work to elevate both the tone and the content of our political discussion. One of the things that I always admired about Obama was his willingness to discuss nuances of policy, and to credit us with having the ability to "get it.". We all have an obligation to speak up, to be willing to listen to other's proposals, and to engage in thoughtful, civil discourse to move our country and our people forward.

Perhaps 2nd or 3rd most polarizing election not #1

Unless you assume that the result of the 2012 election is a civil war, then the election will not be as polarizing as 1860. Recall there were 4 candidates as the democratic party split, and the republicans were a northern only party. The second candidate for polarizing perhaps more is 1896 McKinley versus Bryan, where populism was at its peak. (note that this election occured in the middle of what before the 1930s was the great depression, caused by overspending on railroads.) That one took 6 years to work out without much government intervention, all be it that had Bryan won there would have been a lot of intervention. So perhaps it should be phrased most polarizing modern election.

Whatever Happened to the Vision Part two.. to Peter

September 6, 2011
Dear Peter,
Reading your epiphany, plan and vision that you published in Newgeography.com along with your second article vocalizing your angst that the U.S does not have a “shared vision” of the direction and future of our beloved nation, my visceral response is that your observation is correct—sadly, even more sad is that “We the People” as the “melting pot” nation will more than likely be unable to manifest a “shared vision” of the direction of our nation because of the nature of the beast in humanity.
What was brought to mind was your reference to your own “quixotic notions” about the bold vision for the U.S.A. was the mental image of Don Quixote as drawn by Pablo Picasso--as well the plot where Quixote is on his quest to restore the former glory of Spain but he must constantly deal with malevolent people and catastrophic turmoil on his quest as the “knight in shining armor” to save his world. So feel comforted in knowing your quest is an ancient one! As an avid reader, the idea of a “shared vision” never being manifested is comforting to me because some of the darkest economic and political ideas ever to have been written about in this century explore government and society where a “shared vision” of government is imposed on its people: 1984, A Brave New World, Catch 22, The Fountainhead, Advise and Consent, all of which I have read many times over.
As a scientist, writer and a reader of both science and science fiction your youthful memories provoked similar mental images for me ranging from the Jetsons cartoon to the Fifth Element. Years ago working for NIH in Cancer Research. I will never forget when Richard Nixon funded NIH’s “War on Cancer” in 1971, when I was a young woman working in the heady environment of fully funded work I was convinced that by the time I was fifty that a cure for Cancer would be surely found and was well within our grasp. I don’t have to tell you, Peter, that did not happen in large part because of the gross internecine turf battles between agencies within NIH, FDA and even the Patent Office granting drug companies “special” grants based on unfounded clinical work that goes on to this day. Ah, but that is my story. But do you see the parallel?
Back to your epiphany and shared vision for the future of the U.S.—specifically addressing your lament about the lack of positive direction because of the extreme divisiveness now once again rearing its ugly head from the abyss where it has been lying dormant in between elections: I will fast forward to a vision that can be shared by all Americans: we as a nation have a mandate given to us by the framers of the Constitution to be stewards of this great nation, the physical United States of America by granting the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness under our Constitution using the English language as the melting pot language. We are privileged to live in one of the greatest countries in the world not just because it was founded by men seeking freedom from despotism and tyranny; seeking the right to worship God, own property and proper for our future families by creating their own destiny in safe haven, but also because the natural wealth this physical country of North America inherently holds. We are its stewards and we are responsible for the care and nurture of this great nation.

Peter, please keep tilting at Windmills and I will be there tilting right along with you! Someone has got to do it. On a final note, we may not have flying cars—but did you ever envision the power of the internet? Where the entire world can actually have a “argument” LOL simultaneously? And did you automatically know what LOL meant? We are creating right now!
As always, Kudos to you and keep up the great work!
Isabella Hale