Apocalypse Now

June 7, 2010

“Apocalypse Now” the cartoon jeers, satirizing the cuts in local government services. If only it were funny. But can we afford to laugh as we are forced to make dramatic cuts in the school budget, even as we fail to educate all of our children? We must drastically reduce library hours, cutting job-hunters off from the computers they need to search for jobs in a stubbornly sluggish economy. If you play tennis in a public park rather than at a country club, who will maintain your tennis court when the Park and Rec budget is cut? When the new budget year starts the first day of sizzling hot July, will the children who rely on public swimming pools to escape the heat be disappointed?

Listening to public radio in my car, I learn that AIDS activists in poor countries are angry that America is reneging on pledges for treatment of people who will die without our help. Americans are angry too, and are throwing tea parties to protest…what? That their taxes are too high, even as governments around the country are unable to provide even the most basic of services?

Forgive me if I seem confused. Because in truth I am not perplexed at all. An economics major in college, I have feared this meltdown for a long time, although I confess that I am stunned at the reality of my wealthy and beloved country faltering in such apparent disarray.

Economics, you see, is all about resource allocation. Where did all of our wealth go? You might start by looking inside the oversized houses located far from workplaces that no longer exist, houses that no one can now afford to heat or cool. Check out the kitchens where families eat their McDonalds take-out on granite countertops amid state-of-the-art appliances. Look in closets and consignment shops and yard sales and even in landfills for the purchases we made when 70% of our country’s annual spending went for consumer goods and services. Purchases of goods and services that were not necessary, and that I knew would be easy to forego when times got tough. But then, where would such belt-tightening leave our economy?

It left us right here, with bridges in our highway system no longer safe due to our failure to fund infrastructure maintenance. With a health care system capable of the greatest medical miracles on earth, yet unable to efficiently deliver basic care to tens of millions of uninsured citizens. With a government no longer able of to govern because its participants are incapable of compromise, the underlying principle on which this country was founded. With an oil well spewing millions upon millions of gallons of oil into the environment, while the people we trusted with our vital natural resources scramble about helplessly.

We have let each other down. We have let the world down, as we have allowed ourselves to squander our resources, exploiting one another in the process. We have even failed to take care of the planet that sustains us. We are indeed the “foolish school of fish on wheels” that James Taylor dubbed us in his elegy for the earth “Gaia.”

I am nonetheless optimistic. Technology has brought us a new world order, one in which the individual is empowered as never before. And some of those individuals, people who seem motivated by a different ethic than the ethic of greed that has for so long been condoned in this country, are creating enterprises that I believe will take us in a new direction.

I see this trend at the Apple computer store, abuzz with customers who paid only $100 for a vast array of resources to help them learn to use their computers, customer-friendly resources hard to imagine coming from any PC vendor. “We want our customers to know how to get the most out of our products,” an Apple trainer said sincerely. I see it in the human services organization Common Ground, started in 1990 by one woman in her twenties, now mobilizing resources worldwide to end homelessness. I see it in the revolutionary use of technology that helped to elect our current president.

It may look like an apocalypse now, but economics calls this a “dislocation.” Like a dislocated joint, this is a painful experience, confirmed by the yelling and screaming of those most fearful of the new day coming.  But from among the ruins, I expect to see new leaders with a new morality arise to mobilize the vast human capital now lying fallow. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways.” May this fulfillment be a world in which we take care of our planet and of one another. Or we will be destined for Apocalypse Anew.

Advertisements