Saturday, November 28, 2009

Approaching Average

A couple of things in the newspapers caught my eye recently. One was a news story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about how taxes in Wisconsin compare to other states. The other was a commentary by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on what has to happen to prevent America's decline.

The headline over the Journal Sentinel story was "Wisconsin improves its ranking on taxes." Revealing choice of words. The assumption - and bias - here is that lowering taxes is always an improvement. When we're told Wisconsin is "approaching average," it is taken for granted that such a condition is a good thing.

Meanwhile, Friedman is lamenting how America is becoming less exceptional. Approaching average, one might say. He says better leaders won't be nearly enough to right the ship. We need better citizens "who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do hard things."

Hmmm. . . .

Wisconsin improving. Tax ranking falling.

America declining. Must. Do. Hard. Things. Sacrifice. Even pay higher taxes.

Cognitive dissonance, it's good to see you again. It's been awhile.

Once my head stopped spinning, another thing caught my eye in Friedman's column. Six things, actually. Six things that are paralyzing America and preventing us from confronting and conquering the huge problems plaguing our country. First among them is money in politics, which has "become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest."

Next is gerrymandering of political districts so "politicians of each party can now choose their own voters and never have to appeal to the center."

Two related problems are the cable TV culture that "encourages shouting" and segregates people into "their own political echo chambers" and the Internet culture that, at its worst, "provides a home for every extreme view and spawns digital lynch mods from across the political spectrum that attack anyone who departs from their orthodoxy."

Friedman also points to the "permanent presidential campaign" that leaves little time for governing. And finally, he calls out American businesses that have become so globalized that they no longer can see beyond their own narrow interests and meaningfully contribute to a national dialogue on how to keep this country strong and prosperous.

He concludes by saying a "great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power - no matter how much imagination it generates." Or, one might add, no matter how much it cuts taxes.

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