Talking about change is pretty easy when it’s someone else you figure needs to change. Many polls agree on one thing…many, many Americans believe our country is going in the wrong direction. They may disagree about what that wrong direction might be, but they agree that they’re uncomfortable with many current trends. In the media, and in politics, and across our society…fingers are pointed at this or that group as the ones who need to change for our country to correct its course, leading to a healthier and more sustainable future. Well, friends…how’s that working? In my observations, this method hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work in the future. The only tried-and –true change method is when ‘I’ decide an issue is important enough to study and discuss deeply and carefully with others…and then ‘we’ join together to change what ‘we’ do.
The first problem with this method of change, however, is that it requires a willingness to be at least somewhat self-reflective. What is most urgent and important to me? At the heart of this question is an awareness of what ‘I’ value most…and this requires at least a glimpse of where ‘I’ fit in the grand scheme of things. What’s more…we’re so busy these days that very few issues touch us in a personal enough way to get us engaged in more than complaining. But…when ‘I’ see that ‘I’ have a personal stake in changing the direction of public policy, a strong desire for resolution emerges and grows…and this desire stirs an interest in learning and talking and acting. In order to change the direction of ‘us’, ‘I’ need to decide that ‘I’ will participate in that change.
Unfortunately, the second complication in this method also concerns some self-reflection…it requires some humility. ‘I’ need to recognize that the dilemmas we face are so complex and intertwined that no single person, nor political party, nor ideology, nor race, nor media pundit, nor social status can successfully plot our course into the future. A change in direction will require participation by a vast array of diverse voices…not just those with whom ‘I’ already agree. In humility, each of us will hunger to understand why others disagree with us so deeply…so we can discover a way forward that will work for us all. We finally realize there is no other way. In order to change the direction of ‘us’, ‘I’ need to accept and value the hopes and dreams, the needs and frustrations of others…many others.
I believe the most prominent barrier blocking us from a healthier and more sustainable future is our malignant, national debt…personal, corporate and government. Only individuals can deal with our addiction to personal debt, deciding to practice both accountability and responsibility. The other two…corporate and government debt…must be dealt with through public policy decisions where millions of individuals decide these issues are important enough for comprehensive study, deliberation and advocacy to find our way forward. Corporations will continue to create new ‘bubbles’ if regulations aren’t in place…this is how they defer payment on their cost of doing business in order to maximize profits in the short term. The federal government will continue to spend more than it receives in revenue if new priorities aren’t adopted…this is how politicians sustain an unhealthy dependence on federal programs. Debt is an American sickness…and we’d better deal with it before it’s irreversible and eventually terminal.
On June 26, 2010, AmericaSpeaks will hold a national town meeting on ‘Our Budget, Our Economy.’ From their website: “…thousands of Americans, in hundreds of locations across the United States and online, will weigh-in on strategies to ensure a strong economic recovery and a sustainable fiscal future.” This can be a critical conversation for our nation…or it can be just another well-meaning exercise in political theater. Each of us individually will decide if our debt-sickness is important enough for study and careful conversation. We’ll each decide between humble appreciation of diverse voices or arrogant blindness that protects short-term gain at the expense of long-term well-being.
How do we as a nation change the direction on our debt? Do we individually have the courage to confront our debt-sickness? Do we have enough humility to fully engage in civil conversations with each other about what we value most…and why? As our debt-malignancy continues to grow, our treatment options diminish. We’ll all be challenged in different ways.
Libertarians will relish the idea of reduced government size and spending, but will rile at the thought of higher taxes and increased corporate regulation. Conservatives will appreciate the opportunity to dramatically reduce the cost and reach of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, but will resist the inevitable requirement for reduced corporate subsidies and military spending. Progressives, however, will be hardest hit by these conversations…they will find few opportunities to increase revenue, but will have to face the dismantling of our ‘equality infrastructure’ (see ‘Starting Over‘ blog post from May, 2009) as entitlements and federal programs must be significantly cut or ended completely.
These will be gut-wrenching conversations, if we have the courage and humility to face them head-on. The most telling question for me isn’t whether we have the capacity or the intelligence or the creativity to meet these challenges…it is whether we have the character to be a thriving, self-governing people. Changing direction on our debt…this is one of those moments when we each look into the mirror, and discover if we respect the face that stares back at us.