America's Finite Future?
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Near the beginning of Saturday Night Fever , John Travolta's Tony Manero, frustrated that his boss thinks he should save his salary instead of spending it on a new disco shirt, cries out, "F – - the future!" To which his boss replies: "No, Tony, you can't f – - the future. The future f – -s you! It catches up with you and it f – -s you if you ain't prepared for it!" Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but America has morphed into a nation of Tony Maneros – collectively dismissing the future. And nowhere is this mindset more prevalent than at the Bush White House, which is unwavering in its determination to ignore the future.
The evidence is overwhelming. Everywhere you look, it's IOUs passed on to future generations. Record federal debt. Record foreign debt. Record budget deficits. Record trade deficits.
And this attempt to f – - the future is not limited to economics. You see the same attitude when it comes to energy policy, health care, education, Social Security and especially the environment – with the Bushies redoubling their efforts to make the world uninhabitable as fast as possible. (See their attempts to gut the Clean Air Act, gut the Clean Water Act, gut the Endangered Species Act, gut regulations limiting pollution from power plants.)
And the even bigger problem? They don't see this as a problem. In fact, it actually all may be an essential part of the plan.
If this last sentence doesn't make a wit of sense to you, then you are clearly not one of the 50 million Americans who believe in some form of End-Time philosophy, an extreme evangelical theology that embraces the idea that we are fast approaching the end of the world, at which point Jesus will return and carry all true believers – living and dead – up to heaven ("the Rapture"), leaving all nonbelievers on earth to face hellfire and damnation ("the Tribulation"). Christ and his followers will then return to a divinely refurbished earth for a thousand-year reign of peace and love.
In other words, why worry about minor little details like clean air, clean water, safe ports and the safety net when Jesus is going to give the world an "Extreme Makeover: Planet Edition" right after he finishes putting Satan in his place once and for all?
Keep in mind: This nutty notion is not a fringe belief being espoused by some street corner Jeremiah wearing a "The End Is Nigh!" sandwich board. End-Timers have repeatedly made the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic books among America's best-selling titles, with over 60 million copies sold.
And they have also spawned a mini-industry of imminent doomsday web sites like ApocalypseSoon.org and RaptureReady.com. The latter features a Rapture Index that, according to the site, acts as a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of end time activity" and a "prophetic speedometer" (the higher the number, the faster we're moving toward the Second Coming). For those of you keeping score, the Rapture Index is currently 152 – an off-the-chart mark of prophetic indicators.
Now I'm not saying that Bush is a delusion-driven End-Timer (although he has let it be known that God speaks to – and through – him, and he believes "in a divine plan that supersedes all human plans"). But he and his crew are certainly acting as if that's the case.
Take the jaw-dropping federal debt, which currently stands at $4.3 trillion. Just last month the Government Accountability Office released a report that found that Bush's economic policies "will result in massive fiscal pressures that, if not effectively addressed, could cripple the economy, threaten our national security, and adversely affect the quality of life of Americans in the future."
And what was the administration's reaction to this frightening assessment? Vice President Cheney shrugged, took a hearty swig of the End-Time Kool-Aid, and announced that the administration wants another round of tax cuts. Basically a big f – - you.
Then there's our trade deficit, which ballooned to a record $165 billion in the third quarter of 2004, when imports exceeded exports by 54 percent. Thanks to this imbalance, America is racking up a staggering $665 billion in additional foreign debt every year – that's $5,500 for every U.S. household – and placing our future economic security in the hands of others. Here is Bush's response to this daunting prospect: "People can buy more United States products if they're worried about the trade deficit." Sounds like he's really got it under control.
I guess after the Rapture, debts of all kinds will be forgiven. The White House is promoting a similar "What Me Worry?" attitude with our live-for-the-moment energy policy. America currently spends $13 million per hour on foreign oil – a number that will only increase as U.S. oil production peaks within the next five years just as consumption by industrializing nations doubles over the next 25 years.
So is the president pushing for a long-overdue increase in mileage standards or launching an all-out effort to break our dependence on foreign oil? Hardly. Instead, he's getting ready to make his umpteenth attempt to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
And that is just a small part of the president's full-bore assault on the environment, best summed up by Sen. Jim Jeffords, the ranking minority member on the Environment and Public Works Committee: "I expect the Bush administration will go down in history as the greatest disaster for public health and the environment in the history of the United States."
That said, it's not hard to see why Bush has hopped aboard the Apocalypse Express. Acting like there's no tomorrow dovetails just as neatly with his corporate backers' rapacious desires as it does with his evangelical backers' rapturous desires. It offers him a political twofer: placating his corporate donors while winning the hearts and votes of the true believers who helped the president achieve a Second Coming of his own. No small miracle, given his record.
It's important to point out, however, that it's not just the White House and the End-Timers. Acting as if we have a finite future has infected our entire culture. Just look at personal savings, which have fallen to next to nothing, with Americans socking away a meager two-tenths of 1 percent of their disposable incomes. Meanwhile, the average U.S. household carries about $14,000 of credit-card debt; one in four consumers spends more than he or she can afford; and, as a result, every 15 seconds, someone somewhere in America is going bankrupt. Which, I guess, in Bush World is how an angel gets his wings.
All this represents a seismic shift in our cultural outlook. Since our founding, the American ethos has been forward-looking, geared to a bountiful future, with each generation of parents working as hard as they can to ensure a better life for their children. Those days are clearly gone.
And it has put our entire civilization at grave risk – a point echoed with great clarity by Jared Diamond, whose new book, Collapse," looks at the reasons why so many great civilizations of the past have failed.
Although Diamond offers a range of reasons why these societies collapsed, one message comes through loud and clear: We've got to stop living like there is no tomorrow – or "f – - the future" will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.