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Fortitude and Public Leadership

Last week Tom Friedman wrote a piece for the New York Times (Real Men Tax Gas) that got my attention, especially after my recent Blog on public Leadership (Leaders Stand Up, September 8).  Mr. Friedman’s premise, which threads through much of his recent commentary, is that, if we make the tough calls now, we will reap major positive transformational changes that will ripple throughout American society. However, for some reason, decision makers are more comfortable with traditional policies that prolong war in Afghanistan, grid lock the health care debate, and facilitate dependency on foreign oil. He somewhat strongly states that Americans are ‘wimps’ for failing to deal with the really tough issues – those that impact our pocketbooks…such as taxes that could solve many of the current conundrums.

Because if its foresight, France (yes, France!) now generates almost 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. It manages nuclear waste, security, and location issues without rancor and has developed a society that embraces nuclear energy as a fundamental utility platform. The U.S. has not built a new nuclear power plant since the 1979 Three Mile Island mishap where no one was killed or injured. Scientists have testified that the storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is safe, yet thirty years (!) have passed without progress toward what many scientists believe is a key component of an electric grid that can power the predicted super trains, light rail, and growing need for commercial and residential electricity. Will the cost be enormous? Yes, but what about the ultimate value of the investment? Return on Investment (ROI) is a factor in this discussion, especially with the predicted cost of oil within five to ten years. Don’t get me started on the predicted cost of asphalt…a key ingredient of infrastructure maintenance. It alone could bankrupt many public works departments and state DOTs or drastically alter their balance of services.

Friedman also cites Denmark, which had the foresight and fortitude to impose a very high tax on gasoline (close to $5 per gallon) and used the generated revenue to invest in North Sea oil exploration, new energy conservation initiatives, and a variety of innovative energy production options. Decision makers there had no more or better data than we have in the U.S., but were prescient, prudent and tough enough to make the hard call. Pay now before we have to pay A LOT later, seemed to be the rationale. The decision seems to have also been driven by the assertion that ‘WE know what’s best for us and we will make decisions that are in the long-term best interest of the Country.’

Referencing energy economist Phil Verleger, Friedman notes that a $1 tax on gasoline and diesel fuel in the U.S. would raise close to $140 billion a year. And, if he had that additional revenue, he would allocate 45 cents of each dollar to pay down the deficit, 45 cents to pay for new health care and 10 cents to cushion the burden of such a tax on the poor and long commuters. By biting this very big bullet, Friedman suggests that such a tax would improve oil-related national security, reduce the health insurance burden on American business, expand health care coverage options, and add new dimensions to several strategic positions held by the U.S.

The point is that conflict arises when decisions have immediate and recognizable costs associated with actions. From what has been reported, any discussion about new taxes is ‘off the table’ in Washington, yet Congress continues to spend enormous sums on traditional government actions, such as war in Afghanistan, foreign aid for dozens of countries, special earmark projects, and entitlements. There does not seem to be much stomach for getting ahead of several predicted curves and spending now to prevent catastrophic social and economic costs later,

The questions for communities remain:  What is most important for the long-term preservation and continued development of every community? What expenditures produce the greatest long-term benefit for the most people? What are the essential foundational platforms that must be in place to preserve our society and leave a Legacy for those who come after us? And, do we have the fortitude to do what is critical now in order to reap the benefits later? Time will tell.

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.  www.futurescorp.com  (public futures)