A DISTURBING shift has occurred in American politics: Our
leaders no longer talk much about the future, at least not with any
real optimism. In an atmosphere of fiscal paralysis and frequent
scandal, political leaders have become crisis managers, too
consumed with the present to think very far ahead. They have also
grown more cautious and technocratic, less willing to argue
passionately about the future of the nation. These trends help
account for the public's declining interest in politics. But for my
generation especially - those of us now coming of age and destined
to live most of our lives in the 21st century - a political
discourse which does not look to the future is of little interest.
Worse, it is a discourse devoid of hope.
With a presidential election less than a year away, and with the
perception growing that the country is stagnating, an opportunity
is at hand to reinvent a politics of the future. A central theme of
this politics should be national investment. The idea is not
unfamiliar. For much of the 20th century, investing in tomorrow was
an ongoing American crusade. Major initiatives in areas like
education, housing, and infrastructure created a hopeful framework
for discussing the future.
Such optimism and ambition no longer infuses American politics.
Two decades of sluggish economic growth are partly to blame. More
recently, the federal budget deficits, worrisomely high since the
early 1980s, have served to limit the imagination. But most
significantly, a decade of rule by anti-government presidents ended
White House efforts to choreograph national progress.
The free market, Americans were told, would be the locomotive
which would pull us to a better future. During the 1980s,
investment was a word that Republicans used when talking about
personal finances, not public policy. Between 1980 and 1990,
federal nondefense spending declined as a percentage of the gross
national product. In the process, government investment in the
future plummeted, with cutbacks made in such programs as job
training, preschool education, and research on renewable energy.
In pivotal areas which will affect national performance in the
21st century, the United States is woefully deficient: one in four
children under the age of six live in poverty; 25 percent of high
school students do not graduate; America lags behind other
industrial nations in the training of scientists and engineers.
Today, members of both Congress and the executive branch are so
overwhelmed by the current crisis that it is no wonder they don't
speak much about the future. This year's budget deficit will run as
high as $350 billion, adding to a national debt which is already
over $3 trillion. The costs of the savings and loan scandal are
just now being felt, and are likely to grow more burdensome in the
next few years. …