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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Livin’ in the world today: Cognitive dissonance nation

<on the embarkation of President Obama’s second year, a request of our politicians: end the misinformation and start the education. It is time to call out the nation. Our country undoubtedly faces numerous colossal challenges, and in order to solve them, not only do we need legislative action but national behavioral change.

The amount of hypocrisy in our nation’s psyche is astounding. We are willing to point out its presence in others but, naturally, get defensive when others point out our own contradictions. Thus, now more than ever, we truly need a strong display of leadership from our policymakers, leadership that requires courage and honesty, and will surely upset many peoples’ individual interests. It is time the nation hears not what it wants to hear, but what it needs to hear. The population needs to be given responsibility for its problems, because although politicians surely hold part of the blame, a democratic government, in the end, is a reflection of the society it represents.

Our governmental process has become gridlocked and unsustainable. With health care, the economy, budget deficits, and global warming, all deserving crisis-mode action, both parties need to stand together and take their respective political lumps that only leadership can bring. They need to educate the public on our real problems and how changing our attitudes is the only sustainable way of fixing them. Although there are legislative measures the government can and must take on all of these issues, our authority figures need to tell the people how they can make the country better. With regards to health care, it is essential to make changes to extend coverage, keep insurance companies honest, and alter an incentive structure and medical malpractice system that promotes unnecessary tests. How about a reminder, however, that health care reform can only last if we reform the way we take care of our health? After all, part of the equation of decreasing the costs of our health care system will ultimately come from using less of it, and that starts with decreasing our need for it.

As far as the economy, we seem there seems to be a general lack of comprehension as to how we landed ourselves in this recession. Market capitalism is brutal, mercilessly spitting people out in an endless cycle of creative destruction. Yet, it is also the reason we innovate and continue to push the limits of our productivity. In the end, we understand this, but when pushed would never be caught dead refusing a handout even if it distorts the market and hurts the system overall. JFK framed the issue perfectly in pronouncing that although we all want low taxes and high subsidies we of course cannot have both. Laying out these kinds of contradictory relationships is essential if the public can come to judgment on what it really wants from government.

The state’s fiscal situation is a thorny one as well precisely because politicians have not had the guts to recognize their contradictions, as displayed by both Republican and Democratic Party responses to the President’s call for reducing the deficit. Democrats don’t like it because it means cutting spending on the social projects they love to fund, and Republicans don’t like it because it means raising taxes. While in the current economic environment each option may not be desirable, eventually both parties will need to come to grips with reality: the only way to achieve fiscal balance will eventually be to raise taxes and cut spending. (Republicans who claim that raising taxes will be a burden on the economy need look no further than the Clinton years when taxes were higher than they are now, we achieved a budget surplus, and saw unparalleled job and economic growth.)

Finally, the lack of long-term vision towards the future of our environment remains troubling. Those against climate change action say that we cannot afford cap and trade or an energy tax because we would have to use less energy, crippling the economy. Someone should remind them, however, that that’s exactly the point—to use less energy. When examining humanity’s continuous ability to evolve and change, the idea that people would not adjust to having to consume less power seems empirically, if not intuitively, false; people are incredibly adaptive but need to be pushed sometimes. Furthermore, while government grants and tax cuts are a great start to incentivizing green energy, the real jobs growth in the sector will only come from forcing the market to figure out how to use less power. In addition, the same people who are against climate legislation are those that argue against government spending because it will put a burden on our children. Our leaders need to remind Americans of the fact that if we do not control our carbon emissions, fiscal discipline won’t matter to future generations because the world that we leave them will be unlivable.

Now, I admit that expecting our leaders to exercise this kind of leadership in the current political climate is asking a lot. As I wrote last week, the country is frustrated and angry. Perhaps it would be neither politically feasible nor a prudent example of leadership, therefore, to push the nation as bluntly as I have. The time is coming, however, when these messages must be heard. President Obama remarked on Wednesday that Americans sent the Democrats to Washington to solve the nation’s problems. A true display of leadership, however, will be when they share responsibility for the nation’s ills with the American people and start getting us to face our contradictions. Only when Americans understand the part that we play will we really have change in which we can believe.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist

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