HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 19, 2007
From Liberty Street

Political Infantilism

John Turner


For the past couple weeks, I've in the land of disappearing water.  Throughout the southeast, the water tables have been drying up and there has been almost no rain to replenish them. In Atlanta, where I'm writing this, the city is facing a water crisis because a major source for the metropolitan area, Lake Lanier, about thirty miles north of here, has shrunk to levels never before experienced.

Even so, the government of Georgia has been very slow to impose conservation measures. North of the city, in the wealthy suburbs, you continue to see great stretches of lush lawn and immense golf courses of green acres shimmering in the sun.

Conditions are now getting so bad that the local governments have recognized that something has to be done. Slowly, north Georgia is cutting back on nonessential water use. But it's a reluctant, halting process.

What we're seeing here is a pattern that we will observe more and more in the coming decades: Americans sadly learning that their expansive habits of consumption cannot continue forever.

I suppose that virtually every sentient person in the United States knows that we the people of this nation use more than a quarter of the planet's energy production whereas we make up only five percent of the population. Up till now that truth has been assimilated in a ho-hum way. So what? the people have been prone to ask.

The reason the American population has been so lackadaisical about using vast material resources is that we have had a political culture based, almost entirely, on promising people they can have anything that occurs to them. Need simply doesn't enter into it. We're Americans, by God, and if we all want to live in ten thousand square foot houses, and keep every cubic inch of them at a temperature of 72 degrees, winter and summer, and sit looking out through huge expanses of glass at green, cultivated lawns stretching as far as the eye can see, that's okay because God has told the American people that they're special and can have anything they want.

That, in essence, is the message the political class has been delivering to the populace for the past fifty years.

Well, God may have told us that, but nature disagrees. And in the battle between the god of political blather and Mother Nature, she's going to win, hands down.

There is nothing the American people need more urgently than a new generation of political spokesmen who will enter into critical dialogue about what we can and can't do if we want to continue to lead comfortable, reasonably cultivated lives in this country. Political opportunists can proclaim all they want that Wal-Mart will save us. But it's not true. Techniques devised for corporate profit are not magical spells that can deliver us from reality. I continue to hear Republican spokesmen denounce the slate of Democratic candidates because none of them has ever met a payroll or managed a bottom line. I say thank God for that.  The worst thing we could possibly have is a nation run on business principles. It's true, businessmen are concerned with the bottom line. But they're concerned only with the bottom line next year. If they can maintain an impressive profit for just a few more quarters, then they can slip away with vast retirement packages and live in gated communities where the air will always be, as they say, conditioned. That's the American business principal right now. It's not going to do the rest of us much good.

Our basic problem is the American people are addicted to flattery. They like being told that we are exceptional people living in an exceptional nation, where the difficulties that other people address with vigorous debate, careful planning, and sensible priorities simply don't obtain.  We like being lied to so we can be effectively manipulated. It's worse than being hooked on crack cocaine. If you disagree, I invite you to check out aerial photographs of Lake Lanier, and then activate your imagination just enough to speculate what would happen if a gigantic urban area actually ran out of water. What would Wall Street have to say about that?

The people of Georgia should have been told long ago, and in unmistakable terms, that serious problems were on the way. But I don't suppose the Georgia political class should be singled out. Why should we expect them to be any less opportunistic than American politicians generally?


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