Straight Talk on Turning Points


Oct 16, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on October 16, 2005.

Politics traverses bumpy, twisty path

Increasingly, the United States seems to be at a turning point. Across a range of matters in the life of the nation, many Americans would agree, existing patterns cannot hold.

Our zeal to export democracy has mired us in an increasingly unpopular war. Ballooning government budget deficits raise the inevitability of higher taxes, higher inflation, a cheaper dollar — or all three in some combination.

Forty years of laissez-faire energy policy have left us more and more dependent on imported oil. The chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina symbolized the results of more than a generation of efforts to discredit and dismember government. In a pinch, government proved incapable of relieving the human suffering of its citizens.

So, it seems we must be near a turning point — or points — even if we have little idea of how dramatic or enduring that turning point might be. What should we expect?

It is probably a mistake, first of all, to attach too much importance to immediate events. On that score, the 20th century Chinese assessment of the French Revolution — "Too early to tell" — is suggestive. Most of the news that consumes the media will turn out to be ephemeral.

Second, we shouldn't expect the turning point to come as a sudden breakthrough, as often happens in science. The timing of technology is very different from that of politics. Technology is more or less continuous, but politics is not.

Every generation thinks it has witnessed most of the major scientific and technological discoveries in human history. It turns out that those generations are right and always have been. A charming book, "Little Science, Big Science," tried to test that sense empirically and surmised that — at least for the last several centuries — people would have been correct in thinking that about two-thirds of humankind's greatest scientific and technological advances had occurred in their lifetimes. That is what exponential progress is all about.

Scientific busts surprise us more than scientific breakthroughs.

Few scientists, in 1950, could have imagined our current energy straits. They would have imagined that nuclear and other nonfossil fuel sources would by now provide almost unlimited energy relatively cheaply. Yet the breakthroughs they imagined turned out, for reasons both technical and political, to be busts.

But that is science. What about politics or the lives of societies? Technological progress seems, occasional busts notwithstanding, pretty continuous: One discovery builds on the previous ones, and often what seems at the time to be a breakthrough looks, with more perspective, more like the capstone to a continuous process of improvement.

Politics, however, is more discontinuous. Analysts looking at South Africa's nuclear weapons technology in 1990 could have hazarded pretty confident predictions that by now, the country would have many nuclear weapons. In fact, it has none. Political change intervened, and the country's political leaders decided not to build nuclear weapons.

If politics is discontinuous, it also seems cyclical. Not only can specific momentous events intervene — like the end of white rule in South Africa or the fall of communism — but pronounced movements in politics also seem to generate at least a backlash, and perhaps their antithesis.

In Latin America, for instance, there are grounds for concern that the social insecurity that has resulted from a generation of free-market economic policies (often not well managed) is producing a backlash, one that might discredit democratic leaders and even democracy itself, as populist autocrats come to look better than their "democratic" counterparts.

In the overall scheme of things, the reasons for suspecting we are at a turning point might begin with two technological busts — the energy bust that has not produced kilowatts without limit, and the military bust that has made us super-proficient at destroying massed enemies on a conventional battlefield but only a little better at pacifying insurgents contesting our control of a country.

Together, these two busts suggest the United States cannot reach for grand global objectives expressed grandly while hoping to achieve them on the cheap.

Grand objectives may be embraced by American elites but will leave the American people behind. Something must give — either the cheapness or, more likely, the grandeur of the objectives.

Domestically, the turning point might go in the other direction, not toward more limited expectations but toward attention and resources more commensurate with expectations.

The answer to what Americans expect of government, especially with Sept. 11 in mind, could well cease to be "less." Behind all the verbiage about "No Child Left Behind" lies the simple truth that, alas, most of the time, you get what you pay for, and in this case, the nation can't expect that many grade-A teachers will be attracted by grade-C salaries.

So, too, belittling government (and by implication its officials) and starving it of resources is not likely to produce robust, creative responses in times of crisis. The turning would involve expectations as much as money. Perhaps the American people would come to expect their federal government to be active and in charge in the face of a multistate natural disaster of epic proportions, not defensive and finger-pointing.

The Peruvian observer Hernando de Soto notes that the United States led the world in the 19th century by understanding that markets without both institutions and the rule of law result in chaos. But you Americans forgot that, and so, he says, it's now more interesting to read your granddaddies than talk with you.

And so, if we are reaching a turning point, the nation may decide that its national interests require energy policies more robust than subsidizing SUVs.

It may even come to expect more from its corporate leaders than new investment schemes. It might even expect them to show more citizenship. But that would require actually taking the turn once we come to the point.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at Rand. He was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration.

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