Guest Column11/26/08

Nov. 26, 2008

Now that the election is over

By Spencer M. Wright

Like so many others, I am relieved, proud of the choice America has made, and hopeful that the next eight years can bring about the growth of a new spirit and some new wisdom in this country.

My biggest fear is that the nation will not have the patience or the trust needed for President Obama to initiate improvements in our economy, in social justice and in our international stature. I am convinced, though, that he has the “right stuff” for the job. He will necessarily ask us to make sacrifices, and he has promised to tell us what we need to hear rather than what we want to hear.

We will no doubt have to re-think the meaning of the right to the “pursuit of happiness,” for it has acquired increasingly flexible boundaries. This right — perhaps not as it was envisioned in our Declaration of Independence — is often the primary but unacknowledged justification for what the powerful and the rest of us want to do. Self-interest drives a free-market economy, and social justice is not the concern of the “military-industrial complex.” For all of us, the credit card and the information highway have opened vistas of opportunity for immediate gratification, while the potential for painful costs often remains unobserved. Those of us whose cupboards are not bare have done little beyond clucking our tongues over the rampant consumerism in the richest (for now) nation in the world. We know that we face tremendous challenges to our economy, to our security, our stature in the world community and our environment. There is a real danger under those challenges that complacency, turning into outrage over unavoidably leaner measures of well-being, could overwhelm the fortitude we need to sustain our hope for change. President Obama will indeed be tested by us.

My second fear, not to be dwelt upon, is based on the reality that hate — and in particular, racist hate — is a real threat to our next president. It exists, and thrives, in enclaves of ignorance and prejudice that may wither or die but inevitably re-emerge.

Barack Obama’s broad grasp of things that matter, and his fluency and gravity in addressing them, particularly since he secured the election, give me hope that anyone who is willing to pay attention will be able to set aside ideological, racial and other prejudices long enough to permit his emergence and survival as a leader in fact as well as in hope. To the extent that he can broaden the vision of those who view him too narrowly, he will enhance his own safety and ours.

I hope he will speak to us openly and often. I hope he will help us respond not too grudgingly to the reality that our total national indebtedness is not just a few trillion, but $53 trillion, as revealed by the Peterson Institute and known by distinguished Obama advisors who have validated that finding. A $700 billion bailout and a budget deficit in fiscal year 2008 of $455 billion are small pieces of the total picture. There is, unfortunately, no effort by the mainstream media or by government to present this astounding reality to the public, a reality that reflects rising and unsustainable health care costs and other unfunded liabilities that necessitate lowering our expectations regarding our “entitlements.”

We can’t yet absorb the full implications of our fiscal crisis. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on our expectations with regard to health care, compared to our expectations regarding other aspects of quality of life. Most of us would agree that any citizen is entitled to at least a minimally acceptable standard of food, clothing and shelter. When it comes to health care however, we tend to think that everyone is entitled to the maximally effective options that exist. That way of thinking has already created unsustainable health care costs, and can no longer be justified. Health care will have to be rationed in ways other than it already is.

Despite the economic and other challenges that have thrived on national complacency, I am excited and hopeful. I hope that President Obama will nourish a new pride in us as Americans, not just because we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but because the label means we have acquired a new understanding of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that gives more weight to responsibility and restraint and tolerance. To be sure, I don’t want to give up my right to complain when things aren’t going as I think they should, as long as I have done my best to understand.

Spencer M. Wright is a Williston resident.