With midterm elections over and done and 2010 winding down, it’s still not clear whether we should rejoice or moan…but I’m opting for the former.
It was not too many years ago that Econ-1 classes made the clear distinction between “free goods”—air, water, and dirt—and everything else, under the assumption that the former did not fall into the province of supply and demand. There were plenty of those, of course, who knew better—or at least doubted the premise of prevailing economic thought—but their cautions were greeted with the same skepticism accorded street-corner ascetics proclaiming that “the end is coming.”
The rise of political activism in the 1960s changed all that. While observers at the time might not have predicted it, of all the causes dragged out of dark corners, the one that stuck was the environment. Throughout the 1970s, “wars” against poverty, illiteracy, etc., ran their meteoric courses before falling to the ravages of day-to-day life. But the environmental movement, running a deeper, cooler course, was not about to go away. Who would have thought in the early 1970s, while tanks and planes and artillery were still going crazy in Vietnam, that in 10 short years the environment would displace defense at the top of the public concern poles? But it did, taking with it to Washington (and elsewhere) the activist agenda that had brought it out of the shadows in the first place.
The next decade—taking us to the nineties—showed indelibly what happens when you throw public concern, activism, and political opportunity into the same barrel and stir frantically with sticks and carrots. For one thing you get pork, but more to the point, you get chaos...which after nearly 20 more years brings us to the present, where, despite all the noise and steam, it’s not obvious whose hand is on the throttle of the government-fueled environmental train. Congress is gridlocked by fear of public reaction to its highhanded actions of recent years. The Administration, after brave proclamations, continues to “walk stickily and carry a big soft,” in providing environmental guidance and initiative. Despite all the power (and resources) placed in its hands, the EPA suffers from such a huge lack of credibility that not even its traditional champions are distinguishable from the herd of long-term critics. The only group not confused in what it wants and expects is the public, who says, “Quit bashing us with slogans, fix what needs fixing, and don’t break the piggy-bank doing it.” So where does that put us?
With the entrenched forces in such monumental disarray, we have an incredible opportunity to latch onto the real achievements of the past three decades and by tempering our actions with the valuable lessons in things to avoid from the same period, put the train back on a track free from the impediments that have kept the marketplace from being able to focus on the real bottom line
Sound economic decisions—those that have to do with the allocation of scarce resources—are directly related to the clarity with which we are able to view and address the real, undistorted bottom line. This is as true for stewardship as it is for business. Separate or hidden agenda—the desire or ability, for instance, to hide behind stratagems that provide short-term relief rather than long-term solutions—is what has shaped the character and relative ineffectiveness of environmental initiatives and programs in the past. We have a duty to direct our governmental decision makers to abandon their social engineering programs and get down to rebuilding the infrastructure they’ve allowed to disintegrate over the past several decades.