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March of Folly: The Debate We’re Not Having and What it Costs Us

John Atcheson





There are times when the march of history is marked by fundamental choices that shape forever what follows. 

This nation – indeed the world – is in such a time. Two clear and stark choices face us.  At issue are two competing perspectives about: 1) what we do about a stagnant economy; and 2) how we deal with global warming.  More broadly, we face competing views about the role of government in society.

One perspective -- the prevailing viewpoint these days -- is the conservative ideology.  This notion sees government as “the problem” and the free and unfettered market as the solution.  When it comes to global warming … well … it just doesn’t see at all.  It’s in the business of manufacturing denial.

We have seen the fruits of this belief system. The conservative economic approach  has dominated US politics three times now.  First in the late 19th Century, again in the 1920’s, and finally, for the last 30 years. In each case it led to extreme income inequality, and this in turn caused the three biggest economic crises in out nation's history.   In each case poverty and want increased. Bottom line: we have clear empirical evidence that this economic philosophy is self-limiting and destructive.  It is lemming-like in its inevitable rush to the cliff.

The fruits of the conservative’s denial of global warming are also evident.  Each decade of denial adds to the costs of energy and the costs of mitigating global warming; fosters heat waves, draughts, floods and fires; and brings us closer to irrevocable global catastrophe.

The other alternative is the progressive perspective which believes that government has a role in how we run our economy, and believes that global warming is real, and solvable with the right energy policies.  In fact, progressives advocate government investment in clean energy infrastructure as a means of creating jobs and prosperity while cutting emissions of greenhouse gasses.

We have seen this in action, too.  The New Deal rescued us from the vagaries of the market uber-alles policies that destroyed the economy in the 1920’s and launched more than 30 years of broadly shared prosperity.  More recently, a too-small stimulus program saved some jobs after the Great Recession of 2008. But since Reagan, we’ve been removing regulations such as Glass-Steagall, and that shared prosperity is morphing into exploitation of the vast majority of Americans by the wealthy few. 

So here we are:  in the midst of a crippling economic stagnation, and facing a tipping point at which global warming becomes irreversible and catastrophic.

All available evidence suggests that the conservative economic  approach hasn’t worked in the past and won’t now. 

On the other hand, we know that economic stimulus measures have worked in the past and worked again in 2009-2010.  We know that government has been a partner in prosperity, building supporting infrastructure, conducting groundbreaking R&D, assuring a level playing field, and assuring that wealth doesn’t get so concentrated at the top that our economy stalls as it always has when this happens. 

We know we could cut greenhouse gasses at a very low cost and create jobs in the bargain.  In fact, clean energy investments could have a positive return for the US and taxpayers – unless of course you’re an oil company. 

But as the election approaches, we aren’t talking about these twin monumental  challenges we face, or the alternative philosophies about governance that should be competing for our votes.

No.  We’re talking about: Gay marriage.  Chick-a-File. Repealing health care, who made the latest gaffe ...

In short, we are not having the most important debate facing this country since the Great Depression – perhaps since the civil war.

We’re not having it because the corporations and rich people who run this country have used the conservative philosophy to discredit government and snatch control of the media and the election process.  We’re not having it, because if we had a debate on the merits, conservatism would lose.  We’re not having it because there is no advocate for the progressive policies that have a proven track record.

Historian Barabara Tuchman described four cases where governments knowingly pursued policies contrary to their own interests, even when they knew of feasible alternatives.  She called these Marches of Folly.  

The four she outlined shaped the future in fundamental ways, but none holds a candle to the March of Folly we are now engaged in.  We are ignoring global warming, embracing solutions to our economic plight we know won’t work, and avoiding championing those that would.

In the end, we get the government we deserve.  If we’re willing to put up with ads that lie, Birther nonsense, chicka-filet non-news, blame games and gaffe-of-the-day, then we will waltz into the mother of all Marches of Folly, and our future will be forever impoverished.


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John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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