Monday, June 6, 2011

What if?

 Dystopia (noun) 1. a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.  Antonym: Utopia, a society characterized by human contentedness, as cooperation, freedom, health and peace.

The book is titled 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America and it portrays a dystopian vision that may not be so far off or even fictional.  Written by the comedian Albert Brooks, film writer, director and actor (Lost In America, Broadcast News, Defending Your Life, Finding Nemo), the story imagines the United States in just nineteen years. The science fiction premise of the book is that a universal cure for cancer is found, resulting in radically increased longevity for aging America. Suddenly a whole demographic of folks, especially baby boomers, is living vitally and well into their nineties and beyond in unprecedented numbers.  That’s the good news, utopia. 

The bad news, dystopia, is that this group has essentially sucked dry the ability of the federal government to provide Medicare and Social Security services and payments for the burgeoning elder population. Most of the federal budget is devoted to debt service. Uncle Sam and the United States is essentially flat broke, a floundering and failing nation marked by political gridlock and governmental impotence. The young in 2030 live hopeless and bitter lives, aware that the American Dream their parents and grandparents so cherished has essentially gone nightmarish.  China is now the world’s superpower.  America is second rate, a debtor nation.  The young form “Resentment Gangs” and plot revenge against the old.  That’s all I’ll reveal from the plot. 2030 is a compelling, somewhat depressing but sobering and prescient read, a very unfunny book from a very funny guy.

And maybe not so far fetched.  As I write this column the Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the President are locked in a frightening game of chicken.  The deadline for raising the national debt ceiling fast approaches: August 2nd.  The markets are in somewhat of a June swoon right now and some fear that without a raised debt ceiling, the whole economy might tank.  Conservatives seem more than willing to float the notion that America should risk defaulting on its debt of $14,000,000,000,000.  (That’s about $46,000 per US citizen.) Liberals seem frozen and up until now have been unwilling to come up with their own plan to right America’s listing fiscal ship.  Is this what the beginning of dystopia looks like?

That’s a hard “what if?” to imagine.  After all, as a person of faith, I’m in the utopia business, the hope that if only folks can follow the message of love, which God has forever attempted to teach us, the future is bright.  We can all get along.  And with the right civic stuff and wise leadership and mutual sacrifice and big ideas and a national commitment, we can weather this storm as we always have in the past, right? The Civil War. The Depression. World War II.  The Cold War. We came through then, maybe not utopian but certainly better, stronger, more whole as a nation.

But this time?  I hate to confess it but I’m not so sure.  Does America and its citizens and its politicians have the fortitude and strength needed to turn things around?  We’ve got the solutions. This year several bi-partisan groups, both government sponsored and private, proposed various plans for getting our books in order.  These plans all offer basically the same answers. Trim social programs.  Increase some taxes.  Raise the retirement age.  Cut defense.  The thing I respect about these proposals is that they ask everyone to give, every one.  Elders and the young. The rich and the middle class and the poor.  Conservatives and liberals.  Guns and butter.

Yet when I listen to the tone of the debate in Washington all I hear from the pols is bitter partisan barbs. Folks, even in the face of potential dystopia, seem interested in only defending their narrow view of what is “best for America”.  Even worse neither side is willing to challenge the American citizenry to sacrifice, not even a little bit.  Getting re-elected trumps doing what is best for all of us, it would seem.

Still I’m hoping 2030 is a fiction at best, a good summer read, an enlightening tale which just might jolt some of us into getting serious about both governing and being governed.  I want to anticipate a future which, while not necessarily utopian, at least calls us to our very best as Americans and as human beings. 

For now the clock is ticking.  The deadline approaches.  What will it be? Utopia or dystopia?    



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