07/11/2011 04:04 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2011

The Last Shuttle, the Endless Deficit, a Frozen Culture; a Meditation on Limits

To be healthy, a society -- like a mature adult -- must be capable of dreaming, and of discipline.

Last week, with the valedictory flight of the Space Shuttle, and the contemporaneous failure of the parties to agree on a bold step to address the structural cause of the deficit, we've demonstrated our failure on both counts.

The final Atlantis mission reminded us of the powerful imaginative role that the space program still holds in the emotional lives of Americans. A good friend of mine took his daughter to bear witness; he wrote that having seen a man walk on the moon as a five year old was a deeply formative event for him. This was a way of sharing that wonder.

There's something puzzling about a president who wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope becoming the Privatizer-In-Chief, turning much of the space program over to for-profit companies. From dream counters to bean counters. From the Right Stuff to the ROI Stuff. It's one thing to do that with prisons and parking meters, it's another to do it with the imaginations of children.

More and more, we believe government should do less and less. That's even true of Democrats. More and more, we also believe that government is capable of doing less and less. More and more, we see it as an enemy.

The space program -- going back to President Kennedy's famous 1962 speech in which he promised to put a man on the moon within the decade -- was something that every American could point to and say "We did that."

There aren't many "We did that" moments left. (Name the last one prior to taking out Bin Laden. Go ahead. Name it.) Our accomplishments are largely historically lodged and contemporarily diffused. Politicians speak of America's greatness either through the glories of the past or bland and bromidic generalizations about freedom and opportunity in the present. But the mind yearns for the concrete, and the tangibility of the space program proved that the man-made construction that is American government is capable of transcendence.

Withdrawing from much of the space business, and turning it over to the private sector, reveals a society that has lost its communal and collective ability to dream forward, into the light.

But while we've lost our ability to think big, have no fear: we haven't lost our entitlement to live big. We are operating without the healthy, internal frictions of self-discipline. Decades of wanton spending and consumption -- personal and governmental, in willful disregard of the consequences -- have created a budget deficit that everyone agrees is a time bomb. President Obama has gone further than the Republicans in recognizing that the times call for discipline -- which means cutting spending and raising revenue.

But there is far from any sort of national consensus on this, even though raising the debt ceiling is an ineluctable necessity after years of free-spending. We've all lived beyond our means. Yet the polls show that Americans oppose raising the ceiling -- one recent survey found 45 percent opposite it versus 32 percent who are in favor. A lack of discipline meets a surfeit of denial, a toxic brew.

Niels Bohr once said that the opposite of one profound truth may be another profound truth. For me, that means a healthy society must simultaneously be able to dream beyond its limits, and to live within them.

We appear to be able to do neither.