The past offers a key to the future

December 31, 2007

by Ivan Raconteur

As 2007 winds down, we might be tempted to reflect on the year just past, and the new year that is about to begin.

Have we learned anything from the events of the past 12 months?

We have certainly picked up some useful new words and phrases.

The escalating disaster in the housing market made us painfully aware of the term “sub-prime mortgage.”

After we watched the I-35 bridge topple into the Mississippi, we learned about “structurally deficient” bridges.

The news has been crowded with reports about the ongoing mess in the Middle East, wildfires in California and Greece, and the recall of millions of toys and a host of other products that were made in China.

We saw 3M agree to pay $8 million to clean up perfluorochemicals (PFCs) that were found in wells in six Twin Cities suburbs.

We learned about Michael Vick’s other “sport” of choice, and we learned more about Senator Larry Craig than any of us needed to know.

We have seen fire and rain locally as well, with devastating wildfires sweeping through the Gunflint Trail area, and floods wreaking havoc in other parts of the state.

The real question, though, is whether or not we have learned anything that will improve our lives in the future.

After the bridge collapse, some people felt a bit uneasy whenever they drove over a bridge.

Will this result in any real changes? Will anyone take responsibility for making sure that we maintain our existing infrastructure so we don’t have to hear about other tragedies in the future?

The firing of Minnesota’s homeland security director Sonia Morphew Pitt, and efforts to pressure Transportation Commissioner Carol Molneau to step down may grab headlines, but they will do little to solve the underlying problems.

Politicians love ribbon-cutting ceremonies and other events that allow them to get their mugs out in front of their constituents. They don’t mind supporting funding for new roads or bridges that get them the publicity they crave. But, will they now start making the tough decisions and allocate needed funds for routine maintenance that gets no press but is vital to our safety?

In places like California, where subdivisions full of expensive houses have burned, been rebuilt, and burned again, will we learn from this, or will people continue to build houses in areas that are clearly prone to damage by wildfires?

The same applies to those who build expensive developments on coastlines that are prone to hurricanes.

Will people continue to build homes and businesses in these areas and then expect the rest of us to bail them out and help them rebuild after the next storm comes through?

The disaster in the housing market has had a devastating effect on many parts of the economy, and it was caused by one thing: greed.

It was the result of the insatiable “I want it now” mentality that has become rampant in this country.

People bought houses they could not afford without any thought to the future. Many of them took advantage of adjustable rate mortgages.

Here’s a news flash: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We know this, and yet we continue to stick our necks out and are easy victims for impossibly “good” deals and get rich quick schemes.

The mortgage industry shares some of the blame for the situation. Unscrupulous lenders arranged loans that should never have been approved for buyers who were not qualified. Here, too, the motivation was greed and a chance to make a quick profit.

Now that the fertilizer has hit the fan, and the foreclosure rate has reached epic levels, the “victims” are looking for someone to bail them out.

Will we learn from this? The credit market has begun to respond, but what about consumers?

Will we ever start living within our means?

Product safety is another important issue.

Despite all that we have seen over the years, people still react with shock and outrage whenever a new recall of hazardous products is announced.

Why does this still come as a surprise to people?

If we continue to buy cheap imported goods, and ignore the obvious questions about why those goods are so cheap, we deserve everything we get.

If a product made somewhere else is dramatically cheaper than a similar product made here, we need to start asking why.

Are inferior or hazardous materials used in its construction? Is it produced without proper controls to ensure safety or purity? Is it manufactured in sweatshops using child labor or employing people who do not earn a livable wage or receive any benefits?

There is a cost associated with taking shortcuts or looking for the easy way out.

Will we accept this and change our behavior, or will we continue to demand the lowest possible price, and then complain when we receive dangerous goods, or when more American jobs are lost to overseas competition?

We must also remain vigilant about protecting the environment in our own backyard.

The 3M PFC case is a clear example of how the decisions we make today will affect people and the environment decades from now.

The first priority of business is to increase profits, and, while some companies are good stewards of the environment, others are not, and we need independent oversight to make sure that business and industry do the right things with respect to the environment.

The real lesson we should be taking from the events of the past year is that we need to wake up and see things as they are, not as we would like them to be.

Being honest with ourselves is the first step toward making better decisions.

What we really need in this country is a healthy dose of personal responsibility, and that is as rare as Amish computer programmers.

If we don’t wake up and start learning from the past, we are in for more unpleasant surprises in the year ahead.