More than three decades ago, sociologist Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death which made the argument that the fear of death, in all its irrevocability and finality, provides a unifying, baseline reality for humans.
We may be overwhelmed and confused by an increasing number of competing “truths,” wrote Becker, but one truth cuts through all others: We’re all gonna die.
Acting effectively in the face of that reality, denying its hold on us, gives us the chance to be creative, to be heroic even.
These days, a similar passion for optimism in the face of dire prospects might be called The Death of Denial. We are about to be freed to innovate, to become heroes even, by being stripped of comfortable delusions. Chief among them: Faith that somebody else will pick up the tab.
It’s easy enough to point fingers at the villains we imagine to have cheated us out of our dream state: The lenders who encouraged borrowing for houses that people couldn’t afford, the Wall Street geniuses who hid the risks in bundled securities, the politicians who borrowed more money to bail out bad debts and bad management.
Our collective frustration at all those other guys cashing in on our hard work turned into the throw-the-bastards-out tsunami that reconfigured Congress in the mid-term elections.
So now let’s ask the all-important Dr. Phil question: How’s that working out for us?
Too early to tell, maybe. But it’s not looking great for government workers — including cops, teachers, and others whose jobs and pensions are being slashed as states look for ways to deal with the worst budget crunch in memory. Also not so swell for counties and municipalities that channel state money into salaries, projects, and maintenance on the local level. And it’s not going to get better for a while.
Here’s how Governing magazine summed up discussions at its early February Outlook in the States and Localities conference this way: “Even as the national economy begins to turn around, (Fiscal Year) 2012 will be the worst budget year for states and cities so far.”
Cities, which are used to the trickle-down effect of federal spending, aren’t overjoyed either. Governing headlines another budget analysis this way: “Obama’s Budget Creates Rift with Mayors, a Core Constituency.”
But aren’t the states supposed to be balancing their budgets every year, unlike the profligate feds? How did this meltdown happen so quickly. Well, the states, including many that send representatives and senators to Washington to shake their fists at the federal government, rely on the money the feds borrow to keep stuff running at the state and local levels. For most, the return on their citizens’ investment of tax dollars has been enviable.
An analysis of federal spending received per dollar of taxes paid by states in 2005 by the non-profit Tax Foundation found that 32 of the 50 states got more back then they paid into federal coffers. Not news widely shared by those who get elected to government by denying its effectiveness.
Wiggle room for the deniers may be constricting, however. The most recent poll from the Pew Center for the People & the Press suggests that even folks who consider themselves Republicans are getting nervous about Tea Party-driven proposals to cut government programs they like. “In fact,” said the Pew analysis, “across a wide range of issues, including federal spending on entitlements, education, agriculture and energy — the spending preferences of Republicans and GOP leaners who do not agree with the Tea Party are far more in sync with Democrats than with Republican supporters of the Tea Party.”
This doesn’t mean that Congress will read public uneasiness with belt-tightening polls as a reason to keep on borrowing and spending as we did in the Age of Denial. It just means it’s going to be hard to adjust to the new reality, and it’s going to take a while. In the meantime, many of the pots of money local and state governments rely on for the noblest of initiatives are emptying. Which means those of us who thought funding cuts wouldn’t affect how we live and work, how we educate our children and assure our families’ health and safety, have some adjustments to make.
This is not altogether terrible news. Waking from a dream state forces us to take responsibility for living in a more complex environment. We have to stop pretending we can do – and pay – for everything. Just as the Tea Party tantrum will subside, so must all the other tantrums we throw, whether we’re pounding the desk for single-minded environmentalism, single-minded economic development strategy, or single-minded infrastructure initiatives.
Instead of fighting to optimize one component of complex systems at the expense of all the other components, we have to think comprehensively and imagine integrated, cost-effective solutions.
Credit some of the federal agencies, especially those reviled most by the deniers, for already thinking this way. Check out this just released publication by the EPA, tying market performance to Smart Growth.
If there’s one ongoing process that suggests how this new approach might work in the real, messy world, it’s the evolution of the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, which just held its 10th annual gathering in Charlotte, NC. It was my third conference over that decade, and I was struck by all the ways in which passionate folks from the private, non-profit, and government sectors were using the networking opportunity to work their way clear of the debris of denial. Here’s a video I did with three attendees – DPZ’s Tom Low, the CDC’s Dee Merriam, and Julie Mayfield of the Western North Carolina Alliance:
And here’s an overview from Michele Warren, associate director of the Local Government Commission, which puts on the annual New Partners events.
Next year, the New Partners conference is in San Diego. The tough road out of the current frustration and confusion may be more clear then. But be forewarned, the way forward won’t be like the way we’ve come.