This time is different

My friend, Mark Mykleby, who works in the Pentagon, shared with me this personal letter to the editor he got published last week in his hometown paper, The Beaufort Gazette in South Carolina. It is the best reaction I’ve seen to the BP oil spill – and also the best advice to President Barack Obama on exactly whom to kick you know where.

“I’d like to join in on the blame game that has come to define our national approach to the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t BP’s or Transocean’s fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ‘Citizen’ is the key word. It’s what we do as individuals that count. For those on the left, government regulation will not solve this problem. Government’s role should be to create an environment of opportunity that taps into the innovation and entrepreneurialism that define us as Americans. For those on the right, if you want less government and taxes, then decide what you’ll give up and what you’ll contribute. Here’s the bottom line: If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something. So again, the oil spill is my fault. I’m sorry. I haven’t done my part. Now I have to convince my wife to give up her SUV. Mark Mykleby.”

I think Mykleby’s letter gets at something very important: Americans cannot fix what ails their country unless they look honestly at their roles in creating their problems. Americans – both parties – created an awful set of incentives that encouraged their best students to go to Wall Street to create crazy financial instruments instead of to Silicon Valley to create new products that improve people’s lives. Americans – both parties – created massive tax incentives and cheap money to make home mortgages available to people who really didn’t have the means to sustain them. And Americans – both parties – sent BP out in the gulf to get them as much oil as possible at the cheapest price. (Of course, they expected them to take care, but when you’re drilling for oil beneath 5,000 feet of water, stuff happens.)

As Pogo would say, Americans have met the enemy and he is them.

But that means they’re also the solution – if they’re serious. Look, they managed to survive 9/11 without letting it destroy their open society or rule of law. Americans managed to survive the Wall Street crash without letting it destroy their economy. Hopefully, they will survive the BP oil spill without it destroying their coastal ecosystems. But they dare not press their luck.

Americans have to use this window of opportunity to insulate ourselves as much as possible against all the bad things they cannot control and get serious about fixing the problems that they can control. They need to make their whole country more sustainable. So pass an energy-climate bill that really reduces their dependence on Middle East oil. Pass a financial regulatory reform bill that really reduces the odds of another banking crisis. Get the fiscal house in order, as the economy recovers. And pass an immigration bill that will enable Americans to attract the world’s top talent and remain the world’s leader in innovation.

Americans need all the cushions they can get right now, because they are living in a world of cascading and intertwined threats that have the potential to turn their country upside down at any moment. They do not know when the next Times Square bomber might get lucky. They don’t know how long the U.S. and Israel will tolerate Iran’s nuclear program. They don’t know if Pakistan will hold together and what might happen to its nukes. They don’t know when North Korea will go nuts. They don’t know if the European Union can keep financing the debts of Greece, Hungary and Spain – and what financial contagion might be set off if it can’t.

Today, smaller and smaller units can wreak larger and larger havoc – and whatever havoc is wreaked now gets spread faster and farther than ever before.

That is why Americans have to solve the big problems in their control, not postpone them or pretend that more lobby-driven, lowest-common-denominator solutions are still satisfactory.