Last week, debt

this week sharks … what else is new?

In a low-attention-span nation, both the serious and the trivial only stay on our radar screens temporarily

August 02, 2011|By Mark Martin Bednar

The beginning of August is a strange time in America. Children become sick of the activities that their helicopter parents have forced them into, the attention span for Major League Baseball drops off — especially in Baltimore — before playoff races heat up, and Congress prepares for its long recess. To rescue the American public from these melancholy circumstances, the Discovery Channel proudly presents … "Shark Week"!

For an entire week, Americans are seated in front of the television with a clear mission: to make sure that naïve seals can indeed be hunted in slow motion, and that steel cages provide sufficient protection to scuba divers (a concept that is a relief to some, and a disappointment to others). A noble cause, for everyone needs to see the wonders of nature and man's interaction with it. Though "Shark Week" piques both our fascination with the natural world and our desire for seafood for a short while, the week eventually ends, and shark discussions are put on the shelf for another 51 weeks. All the hype! All the love! All the drama! It gets swept aside more quickly than Jay Cutler in last year'sNFC Championship.

Sadly, this one-and-done mentality that we have regarding sharks also exists in the realm of American politics. What's considered an important issue today is lucky to be even mentioned tomorrow. Usually, this does not happen because the problem is solved (e.g. sharks are still feared, misunderstood, and several are endangered). Instead, something else has yanked the attention span of the American public (immediately following "Shark Week," perhaps Kim Kardashian will knock over an old woman at the mall, prompting a major PR campaign from the AARP against further "ageist, elitist attacks on the elderly").

Take the war (or nonwar?) in Libya, for example. Since March 31, more than 6,000 strike sorties have been conducted by NATO. This is no minor blip on the radar of international affairs, yet major media or policy attention has been brought to the issue only during the brief debate of the War Powers Resolution's affect on the administration's decision to intervene. There is no concrete policy regarding the mission in Libya beyond an opaque goal to protect civilians for an indefinite amount of time. Because the Libya issue has not received targeted attention from the American public, the stumbling in the dark will continue.

Additionally, the issue of national debt has not crept up on us. The house of fiscal policy was built upon the sand long ago. Entitlement spending for the high-powered elderly population — that is, automatic benefits such as Social Security and Medicare — has continued to grow, unquestioned, without monetary adjustments or eligibility requirements. It is a part of the discussion regarding the national debt currently, but its appearance on the radar will be brief. Once a "deal" is made to take a legitimate bite out of the debt, akin to what happens to the those unsuspecting seals during "Shark Week," the rest of the problem (still trillions of dollars) will fade away from the public's consciousness.

These issues gain attention — for a short while — before they disappear from television screens. These issues (and many more) do not disappear but get swept under the rug. Lawmakers at both the state and national level could not be happier with this. If the problem can be dealt with later, an incumbent is able to sleep more easily.

It is not our 'roided-up partisanship that prevents us from accomplishing real change. Rather, our indifference is the true roadblock. A divided nation with ideologies out on the table is a healthy and robust nation. When issues remain relevant, policies are challenged. Only then are actions taken by lawmakers to alter the status quo.

This is not a call for marching in the streets. Instead, this is a humble appeal to stay engaged. Old problems don't go away just because new ones appear. After all, it's encouraging to see dialogue taking place between the House and Senate regarding … hey, what's on E! right now?

Mark Martin Bednar is a master of public policy candidate at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies. His email is

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