10/05/2011 12:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2011

It Can't Happen Here (or Can It?)

I had the fascinating experience of spending much of 1992 and 1993 in
Russia witnessing history -- the implosion of a world superpower descending into
chaos and anarchy. I watched as the government collapsed, services stopped, crime
exploded, the economy contracted by 40%, and male life expectancy plunged to an
unthinkable 56 years. In 1991 the ruble converted to $1. By 1994 the rate had
exploded to 2000 to 1. Everything people had taken for granted in their lives
disappeared overnight and the entire population was plunged into a daily struggle
for survival. Luckily for me, as a foreigner I had the luxury of being able to leave
this gut wrenching reality at will.

Over the last three years, I have found myself asking the question "can it happen
here?" There was a time when that would have seemed an impossibility. I am now
no longer sure.

There is a monumental crisis in this country, and no one seems to
comprehend its gravity. We are all too selfish to place the welfare (perhaps even
survival) of our society above our own shortsighted self-interest.

We all know the problems, which have been many years in the making. Over-consumption and under investment in our future. Living beyond our means.
Making promises to ourselves that we can't afford to keep. Electing politicians who
place ideology above our collective welfare, preferring re-election to compromise.
Greed run amok on Wall Street, facilitated by deregulation courtesy of politicians
bought and paid for. A society that selfishly values short-term personal gain above
responsible long-term action, fantasizing that a day of reckoning will never come.

That fantasy is being severely tested. The last time we faced a crisis of this
enormity was the rise of Nazi Germany. On that occasion, the enemy was tangible
and undeniable. The stakes were clear. The country bound together in shared
sacrifice. Sixteen million citizens were drafted into and volunteered for the armed
services. Goods were rationed. Factory workers put in 50 hour weeks producing
the material to wage a war. Taxes were high. People reduced spending to buy war
bonds. In short, we were a citizenry willing to delay gratification in return for a
better future.

This time the crisis is no less real, even if it seems more abstract. And
importantly, this time the threat isn't coming from abroad. As Pogo so eloquently
put it, "we have met the enemy and it is us."

We are mired in quicksand and sinking fast. Time is running out. We need to find the will to make meaningful changes in the way we live in order to preserve our way of life. Among the critical issues we must address if we are to avoid our version of the Russian abyss:

  • The size of government must be reduced. Federal government expenditures as a percentage of GNP are at the highest level since World War II, and much of it is classified as non-discretionary. There must be some rethinking of what is discretionary and what is essential. Entitlements must be reduced. The explosion in Medicare costs must be addressed.

  • The federal tax structure must be simplified and made more equitable.
    The rich must pay more and taxes must be raised. Despite the fact
    that we complain about high taxes, federal government revenue as a
    percentage of GNP is at its lowest level in 50 years.

  • Social security must be put on a financially and actuarially sound basis.
    This restructuring will certainly involve significant increases in the
    retirement age.

  • In many jurisdictions, public service pensions will have to be
    renegotiated. Despite the fact that commitments have been made to
    these plans, in many instances the benefits are too generous and the
    money simply isn't there.

  • Wall Street must be reformed, returning to its essential function of
    providing investment capital to growing companies. Short term trading
    must be reduced. Credit default swaps must be regulated. Too big to fail
    must be addressed.

  • Meaningful campaign finance reform must be undertaken. Lobbying
    must be controlled. We can no longer be a government of special
    interests -- a government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists and for the
    lobbyists and their constituents.

These reforms will be painful. Further, they cannot be addressed piecemeal.
While individually they may be viewed as partisan, addressing them collectively is
precisely what makes them bi-partisan. They require sacrifice from all.

It is difficult to imagine what could propel us as a society to overcome our
myopic selfishness and become willing to embrace collective sacrifice. I confess to
have been hopeful that Barack Obama was an inspirational leader that could bring
us to to that realization and muster the courage to act. In that endeavor he has
undeniably failed. Once again, partisan politics has triumphed.

It's sad to watch a train wreck, particularly one that we have the ability to
avoid. But combine the public's sense of fear, anger and mistrust with our dearth of
leadership, and it's hard to envision from whence will come the will and spirit of co-operation necessary to make the changes we must. But if we don't find it soon, we
may well find ourselves living in the unthinkable reality of our Russian brethren.
And unlike my experience twenty years ago, we won't be able to hop a plane to
make it go away.