Get back to setting goals

March 16, 2010|By Andrew L. Yarrow

In the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, half a century ago - when a great deal was right about America, yet many worried about the country's "drift" - the White House established a blue-ribbon commission to set medium- and long-term goals for the United States and its people. The report did what seems unthinkable today: It challenged citizens, government, business and other institutions to think about the future and what would make it brighter. It also explicitly encouraged "informed discussion by the American public."

In this era of grimly gridlocked government, cynical citizens, battered businesses and life rimmed with disconnected, digitized ephemera, the very idea of setting national goals with the confidence that they could be achieved may sound preposterous. Moreover, the Eisenhower panel's goals seem eerily au courant - as if we've made little progress addressing recognized mid-20th Century needs as the 21st Century careens forward. Other than significant progress in reducing discrimination, mixed results with promoting technology and disarmament, and the timeless goal of advancing individual dignity and "perfect[ing] the democratic process," we might as well be waiting for the Kennedy inaugural.

The 1960 Commission on National Goals, whose ideas were widely disseminated and discussed, called for "reduc[ing] the burden of the cost of medical care [and] exten[ding] medical insurance," greater "investment" in education, reducing "concentrations of economic power," "remedy[ing]" substandard housing and "haphazard" development, preventing "family breakdown," tax reform and "increased investment in the public sector" to "improve the climate" for business, enhancing "public service," and expanding free trade. A few additional worthy goals, such as strengthening the arts and support for the U.N. and internationalism, remain sorely needed but have largely slipped from our radar screens.

It's depressingly familiar stuff, but - unlike America 50 years later - the authors assumed a can-do attitude that the United States could solve these and other problems. As they wrote: "Our past performance justifies confidence that [these goals] can be achieved if every American will accept personal responsibility for them."

Today, there is little, if any, integrated thinking about what our nation should look like in 20 years, despite a surfeit of siloed (and often conflicting) thoughts, reports, commissions, etc. about what our goals should be for schools, the environment, metropolitan areas, families, work force, or various aspects of the economy. Each panel and expert may come up with its 20 ways to make education (or whatever) better, but we rarely treat education as a piece of a national puzzle that includes jobs and economic security, environment and transportation, families and values, etc.

It's hard to imagine people from truly different walks of life, such as entertainers and physicists, entrepreneurs and artists, social scientists and clergy, actually having a yearlong, integrated conversation about what would be better ways to make livable neighborhoods, boost worker morale, identify the most important needs subject to scientific and technical solutions, strengthen family and other personal bonds, and so much more.

Don't just blame partisanship, cynicism or our over-reliance on technical expertise. Government has lost the confidence in itself and from the American people to initiate a far-reaching dialogue about national goal-setting. President Barack Obama had his moment last spring, and maybe he can get it back. Some on both the right and left (even Newt Gingrich, when not wearing his hyper-partisan hat) have had the courage and vision to raise the subject of interconnected, future-of-our-country goals. But, as Eisenhower demonstrated, it is for the White House to summon this sort of multi-partisan group and engage the public.

Of course, we need to address many, many specific problems - job creation, financial reform, health care improvement and cost-cutting, just to name a few - but we also need to do something more and bigger. The president should get advice to select a professionally and ideologically diverse group of 20 or 30 and charge them with nothing less than mapping out what the United States should look like in every imaginable respect in 2030. And it must be an iterative discussion among the panel, its staff and citizens, to ferret out as many ideas as possible and to get Americans behind the idea of thinking big, creatively and optimistically about their country's future.

As the 1960 authors recognized, the "choices are hard, and costs heavy ... But the rewards are beyond calculation, for the future of our nation depends on [them]." If they need some guidance on what to explore, dust off a copy of that half-century-old "Goals for Americans."

Andrew L. Yarrow, vice president and Washington director of Public Agenda, is the author of the forthcoming book, "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is ayarrow@public

agenda.org.

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