The crisis in our political system is less about party than about horizon. To understand why, consider the issue of climate change.
There is clear evidence — presented yet again in a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — that human activity is altering the climate. Global temperatures are rising. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are rising. Concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere are rising. Oceanic temperatures and levels of acidity are rising. Sea levels are rising.
All this rising, however, is gradual. The impact of climate change, while undeniably real, is somewhere between subtle and imperceptible when viewed in an election-to-election time frame. Likewise, measures to decrease carbon emissions would have no immediate payoff. The question is what atmospheric temperatures will be like at the end of the century, not at the end of Senator So-and-So’s next term.
Somehow, we seem to have lost the capacity for long-range planning and execution — at a time when, arguably, foresight and patience are more essential than ever before.
There is a ready-made excuse for doing nothing on climate change: the fact that other nations, too, must act if we are to avoid parboiling the planet. But this is not true of the other big issues that our leaders acknowledge but cannot bring themselves to properly address.
Begin with the hollowing-out of the American middle class. Both parties proclaim that no issue is more important or more urgent. The Republican solution is more tax cuts and more deregulation. The Democratic solution is to level a playing field that has been tilted to favor the wealthy. It is safe to say, given polls showing widespread disdain for politics and politicians, that neither message is hitting home.
I believe voters understand at some level that the problems facing the U.S. economy are structural and will take time to solve. But it is hard to imagine how our system can possibly implement policies that would be effective in the long run — or how, if we managed to take the right course, we could possibly stick to it.
Globalization and automation have eliminated millions of manufacturing jobs that once served as an escalator into the middle class. These jobs will never return. President Obama at least understands that we will need new industries to replace the old ones and that U.S. workers will need to be better educated and more highly skilled.
Conservatives and progressives can argue whether government can effectively help incubate these new industries. But they should be able to agree that now is a time to substantially increase spending on basic research. And while government is not good at picking winners and losers, the president and Congress would be remiss if they failed to recognize that a breakthrough in some fields — solar energy, for example — would produce potentially world-changing benefits. Solyndra was a failure; the next solar company with a bright idea might not be.
It is clear that K-12 education in this country desperately needs improvement. Current efforts at reform are, let’s face it, little more than Band-Aids; some charter schools are very good, some are mediocre, but the real issue is how we improve the public schools. Far-seeing leaders would make public education one of the nation’s top priorities for investment, experimentation and sustained focus — knowing that results might not be seen for a generation. Instead, our politicians argue whether the Education Department should be eliminated.
Anyone who travels to other industrialized countries comes back with the realization that U.S. infrastructure is falling behind. Many countries have much faster and more widely available Internet service, which has to be a national priority in the information age. Other countries have newer airports, deeper ports, faster trains, sounder bridges. Yet the bipartisan consensus on infrastructure spending has disintegrated, and I believe this is because such projects take time — and vision.
Neither party professes to be happy that corporations are hoarding hundreds of billions of dollars in profits offshore. Both parties say they favor corporate tax reform. Yet nothing happens.
I haven’t mentioned the national debt, and that’s because interest rates are at historic lows. This seems to me a perfect time to make long-term investments that will not produce returns in one year, or even five years, but that promise to create the necessary conditions for sustained economic growth.
Sadly, there are few votes to be won with measures that are painful or spending that may not bring results in our lifetimes. No glory, just honor.