Today’s Americans inherited the wealthiest nation in history — but only because earlier generations learned how to feed, fuel, finance, and defend themselves in ways unrivaled elsewhere.
Lately we have forgotten that and instead seem to expect others to do for us what we used to do ourselves.
Take our plentiful, cheap, and safe food supply. Long ago, Americans struggled to create farmland out of swamps, forests, and deserts, and built dams and canals for irrigation to make possible the world’s most diverse and inexpensive agriculture.
Now in California — the nation’s richest farm state — the population is skyrocketing toward 40 million. Yet hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland this year are going out of production, and with them leave thousands of jobs.
Why? In times of chronic water shortages, environmentalists have sued to stop irrigation deliveries in order to save threatened two-inch-long delta fish that need infusions of fresh water diverted from agricultural use. And, for both environmental and financial reasons, we long ago stopped building canals and dams in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to find sources of replacement irrigation water.
So farmers are asked to produce more food for more people in a desert climate with less water — while environmentalists dream of returning to a pristine, 19th-century, sparsely populated California of smelt and salmon in their inland rivers. But the end result will be more imported food from less environmentally sound farms abroad.
Consider energy consumption and supply as well. The United States still has plenty of untapped natural gas and oil — both offshore and in Alaska. We have nearly unlimited coal supplies and oil shale, in addition to the ability to build dozens of new nuclear plants.
Developing such traditional sources of energy responsibly would save us trillions of dollars in imported fuels, keep jobs here at home, and allow the nation a precious window of energy autonomy as we steadily transfer to more wind, solar, and renewable energy.
If we exploit our own energy carefully offshore and in Alaska, it will mean less sloppy foreign drilling off places like Nigeria or in the fragile Russian tundra to feed American cars and trucks.
But this generation of Americans does not want messy drilling at home — only to keep driving. That means more borrowing to buy imported fuel, while telling others to do the dirty work of drilling crude oil in their own backyard.
Both Democrats and Republicans have also taken for granted having enough military power to intervene overseas to remove tyrannical governments such as those of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega, and the Taliban — and to stop atrocities whenever we can. But such power takes hundreds of billions of dollars in expensive hardware and military personnel.
Barack Obama is no exception to this bipartisan muscular idealism. He sent more troops into Afghanistan, keeps attacking terrorists in Pakistan and, during the campaign, even talked about deploying additional troops to save those in Darfur. But he also wants to keep the defense budget static, or even cut it in some places.
In our have-it-both-ways generation, we want to keep our involvements abroad while not worrying as much about the practical means to meet them.
Then there is the question of national debt. We are now projected to run a record $1.7 trillion deficit — and may add $9 trillion to our existing $11 trillion in aggregate debt over the next eight years.
The president, though, has outlined vast new entitlement programs in health care, education, environmental programs, and infrastructure. The problem, of course, is that we have not earned enough money to pay for any of these additional expenditures. Again, the glamorous ends get the attention, never the mundane means of how to obtain them.
Americans became wealthy and strong through unique self-reliance, common sense, and delayed gratification. And we — or our children — will soon become poor precisely because we hold on to the romance that producing food and fuel and saving money are icky tasks to be ignored or left to others.
Until we change that attitude, we’ll keep borrowing and spending on ourselves what we have not yet earned — all the way to bankruptcy.