By BOB HERBERT – New York Times.
We’ve blown so many enormous opportunities over the past several years. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when most of the world had lined up in support of the United States, President George W. Bush had the chance to lead a vast cooperative, international effort to combat terrorism and lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, more secure world.
He blew it with the invasion of Iraq.
In the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we had not just the chance but an obligation to call on our best talent to creatively rebuild the historic city of New Orleans. That could have kick-started a major renovation of the nation’s infrastructure and served as the incubator for a new and desperately needed urban policy. Despite President Bush’s vow of “bold action” during a carefully staged, nationally televised appearance in the French Quarter, we did nothing of the kind.
The collapse of the economy in the Great Recession gave us the starkest, most painful evidence imaginable of the failure of laissez-faire economics and the destructive force of the alliance of big business and government against the interests of ordinary Americans. Radical change was called for. (One thinks of Franklin Roosevelt raging against the “economic royalists” and asserting that “we need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer.”)
But there has been no radical change, only caution and timidity and more of the same. The royalists remain triumphant and working people are absorbing blow after devastating blow. More than 1.2 million of the long-term jobless are due to lose their unemployment benefits this month.
The oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, as horrible as it has been, was yet another opportunity. In his address to the nation from the Oval Office last week, President Obama could have laid out a dramatic new energy policy for the U.S., calling on every American to do his or her part to help us escape the insidious, nonstop destruction that is the result of our obsessive reliance on fossil fuels.
He chose not to.
As a nation, we are becoming more and more accustomed to a sense of helplessness. We no longer rise to the great challenges before us. It’s not just that we can’t plug the oil leak, which is the perfect metaphor for what we’ve become. We can’t seem to do much of anything.
The city of Detroit is using federal money to destroy thousands upon thousands of empty homes, giving in to a sense of desperation that says there is no way to rebuild the city so let’s do the opposite: let’s destroy even more of it. Lots more of it.
There are plans aplenty for demolishing large parts of what’s left of Detroit, which in its heyday was the symbol of an America that was still a powerfully constructive force, a place that could produce things and improve the lives of its people and inspire the rest of the world.
Referring to an aspect of one of the plans, The Times’s Susan Saulny wrote in an article in Monday’s paper: “An urban homestead — one of the more popular parts of the plan — would be tantamount to country living in the city, the plan says, with homeowners enjoying an agricultural environment and lower taxes in exchange for disconnecting from some city services like water.”
The June 28 cover story of Time magazine is headlined, “The Broken States of America.” As I’ve mentioned here several times, the states are facing a catastrophic fiscal situation that is short-circuiting essential services, pushing even more people out of work, and undermining the feeble national economic recovery.
As Time reported: “Schools, health services, libraries — and the salaries that go with them — are all on the chopping block as states and cities face their worst cash squeeze since the Great Depression.”
We are submitting to this debacle with the same pathetic lack of creativity and helpless mind-set that now seems to be the default position of Americans in the 21st century. We have become a nation that is good at destroying things — with wars overseas and mind-bogglingly self-destructive policies here at home — but that has lost sight of how to build and maintain a flourishing society. We’re dismantling our public school system and, incredibly, attacking our spectacularly successful system of higher education, which is the finest in the world.
How is it possible that we would let this happen?
We’ve got all kinds of sorry explanations for why we can’t do any of the things we need to do. The Democrats can’t get 60 votes in the Senate. Our budget deficits are too high. Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck might object.
Meanwhile, the greatness of the United States, which so many have taken for granted for so long, is steadily slipping away.