Like any generation, we prosper on the sacrifice of those who came before us.
But unlike most generations, we balk at renewing those investments and sacrifices on behalf of those who will come after us. Time after time, we take the easy way, not the right way, and as Americans we ought to be ashamed of that.
And maybe we would, if we didn't have plasma TVs and the Internet to distract us so wonderfully, and if we didn't have leaders so eager to pat us on the head and tell us not to worry.
Let's take a relatively minor example: This week, the Texas Transportation Institute released its latest report documenting the growing gridlock on our nation's interstate highway system, particularly in urban areas such as Atlanta. That system - the backbone of our national transportation infrastructure - represents a legacy left to us by our parents and grandparents.
Back in 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, we were a lot poorer as a people than we are today; in the Soviet Union, we also faced a far more serious threat than we do today. But that generation of leaders nonetheless committed to spend what today would be hundreds of billions of dollars to build an interstate system that few could envision back then and that many would never see completed.
Ask yourself: Is it even conceivable that today's leaders - Democrat or Republican - would dare ask the American people to make a commitment to the future on such a scale? Even with our highways turned into parking lots, even for our own immediate benefit, we can't summon enough will to make anything but the most incremental investment in new mass transit systems, railroads and asphalt.
Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer yet another example. In the wake of Sept. 11, after President Bush warned of "a monumental struggle of good vs. evil," he and Congress made sure that this monumental struggle would not inconvenience us in the least. Rather than ask us to pay for war as every previous wartime generation had done, they gave us major tax cuts and told us to go shopping while they dumped the cost of this struggle onto future generations.
In the same fashion, we've handed the burden of fighting and dying in this "monumental struggle" to the relative handful of our fellow Americans who wear the uniform, and then we've gone about our business. It is remarkable that according to a new Fox News poll, 64 percent of Americans think we should pull out of Iraq immediately or within the next year. But apparently, few of that 64 percent care enough to translate that sentiment into political action. Why should we, when we have somebody else's children fighting that war, and somebody else paying for it too?
The same avoidance dynamic plays out in energy issues. We've known since the '70s that we're addicted to petroleum resources controlled by people who really don't like or respect us. In a way, it's hard to blame them. No drug pusher respects an addict who comes to them time after time begging for another fix and never doing anything to shake the habit. And that's just what we've reduced ourselves to.
To compound our shame, many of the steps needed to make ourselves less dependent on foreign energy, and thus less vulnerable to our enemies, would also address another important challenge that we prefer to avoid.
The science behind global warming is no longer at issue - the science is solid. At this point, any doubts raised by skeptics serve as nothing more than excuses to do nothing. And once again, those excuses have been all too welcomed.
The temptation to avoid pain and sacrifice, or to put it off as long as possible, is nothing new. In the previous century, the epitome of moral cowardice was probably Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who in 1938 tried to appease Adolph Hitler by handing him Czechoslovakia. But of course, war came anyway.
If these days are any different, it's because the people we are trying to appease are ourselves.
Jay Bookman is a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution