We Americans have a high regard for ourselves. We are -- or so we tell ourselves -- the richest, the most generous, the most powerful, the most peace-loving, the most productive, the most wise and most lovable nation on the face of the earth.
We also love politicians who dare to tell us all those wonderful things about ourselves. Like any people, we want to think well of our country and take pride in it, and we want leaders who take pride in it as well.
But there's a difference between justified pride and illusion. Too many Americans seem to believe that our place in the world has been divinely ordained and thus permanent, when in fact it is the product of past sacrifice and wise choices. It can all be lost if we also lose the capacity to look at ourselves and our problems honestly.
For example, it is no longer true that we are the richest nation in the world. Quite the contrary, in recent years we have become the world's biggest debtor nation. We are financing our prosperity in the manner of an old but declining aristocratic family, living beyond our means year by year by pawning off the assets earned by earlier generations.
But our leaders don't dare to tell us that truth, because they know we wouldn't take it well. Even as they acknowledge some minor current difficulties, most of our political and business leaders reassure us that our economy is still sound as a dollar. They don't happen to point out that compared to the euro, the value of that dollar has declined by a third in just the last five years.
Yes, we remain productive, but that too cannot last if our government is too poor to invest sufficiently in our public infrastructure. Our roads, bridges, rail lines and ports are crumbling and insufficient in a modern economy, but we decline to tax ourselves to correct that situation. Our nation's Highway Trust Fund -- the main source of infrastructure investment -- will be bankrupt by 2009, yet we refuse to increase gasoline taxes to replenish that account.
Officially, we tell ourselves we can't afford it. But meanwhile we ship fortunes to oil producers overseas, where the money is put to such useful and productive purposes as building ski resorts in the Arabian desert.
There are no easy answers to $4 gasoline, but our leaders are nonetheless eager to offer a few. Some choose to bash the oil companies, as if they are at fault for our addiction to their product. Others suggest suspending the federal gasoline tax, which would slightly and temporarily ease our pain at the gas pump but do nothing whatsoever to cure the underlying disease.
President Bush, for his part, suggests drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, yet another seemingly pain-free solution. But we could drain the wildlife refuge of every single drop of oil it might hold and it would not lower the price of gasoline a nickel. Nor would it alter our strategic situation in any meaningful way.
Four hundred years ago, an English writer-philosopher offered great advice to a counselor to King James I. Always tell the king the truth, Sir Francis Bacon wrote in a letter to his friend. Tell the king what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear.
"If you flatter him, you betray him," Bacon warned. "If you conceal the truth of those things from him ... you are as dangerous a traitor to this state as he that riseth in arms against him."
A lot of things have changed since Bacon's time. In this country, We the People are now king, but Bacon's truth still applies. Those advisors and courtiers who flatter us also betray us.
Instead of flattery, we need honesty. We don't need leaders to tell us how great we are, we need leaders willing to tell us that we've gotten ourselves into a bad mess and it's going to take hard work, sacrifice and cooperation to fix it. The alternative is the decline of a great nation.
Or, as a writer-philosopher named Bob Dylan once put it:
"If it keeps on raining, the levee's gonna break;
Some people still sleepin', some people wide awake."
Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor.
Copyright© 2008 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution