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People Getting What They Want

James M. Cain (1892-1977) once said that one of the great tragedies of mankind is people getting what they want. While this renowned Maryland novelist (The Postman Always Rings Twice and 21 other novels) focused on the darker side of conflict, his writing was energized by the recognition that good things do not always come from accommodation. There is a lesson here for public administrators and elected officials. It translates just as well to the business community.

My audiences always react strongly to questions pertaining to entitlement. ‘Do you feel there is a growing expectation that government at all levels will take care of things? In your community, do you perceive this as a trend?’ Answers are curious, especially in smaller work groups. There is clarity about the need for social services to help the less fortunate, and not nearly as much emotion about helping those in need. But, for those paying attention, recent trends are more disturbing.

We want… is a common refrain. Various interests want good and more roads, less congestion, free parking close to shopping areas, nice, well kept parks, a zero downtime infrastructure, clean water, great health services, housing services for the poor and disenfranchised, really nice police officers, a responsive EMS system, fire stations close to MY property, clean air, etc. This list goes on. It is enormous. In this society citizens want and expect many things. We want zoos, art galleries, skate parks, free-zone graffiti walls, libraries, cheap (and very accommodating) public transportation, efficient airports, charter schools, food banks, homeless shelters, and sports venues. Did I mention cheap higher education?

What Cain identified was the tendency to manipulate one’s environment. While he did not couch it in biological terms, it is founded on the basic pleasure-pain principle that states that an organism will constantly manipulate its environment to achieve the greatest comfort and opportunity. Homo sapiens are the masters. We have had our way with the planet and every city, county, state and federal agency is chock-full of programs that accommodate wants more than needs. Constituents battle over services that fulfill their wants or expectations. Some of those are laudatory; others are questionable when measured against long-term community value.

The future is where we’ll live. After almost 60 years of broad-spectrum accommodation, decision makers are faced with classic triage. With limited resources, deteriorating infrastructure, a struggling economy, huge costs, an educational system that is under fire, and more people falling below the poverty line, what actions are most essential for preserving a community’s future? Giving people what they want is not a reasonable approach.


With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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