The Vulnerability of Modern Society

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, January 16, 2005
By Leon E. Panetta
As humankind enters the fifth year of the 21st century, it has experienced a terrible and horrific event that has reminded us all of just how vulnerable we all are to unintended destruction.

In a matter of minutes, the biggest earthquake in 40 years off the northern tip of the Indonesian archipelago set off sea surges that wreaked havoc around the Bay of Bengal from India to Sri Lanka to Thailand and Malaysia reaching as far as the coast of Africa.

Entire villages have been decimated and the loss of life now exceeds 160,000. A single devastating event has dramatically changed that part of the world and the social, economic and political consequences will be felt for years to come.

The real shock of the tsunami was that too few believed such a disaster was possible, no warning system had been established, and the developing nations bordering on the Indian Ocean did not want to say or do anything that might adversely impact on the growing tourism and business economies of that region.

They were wrong.

The greatest failing was the total disregard for the potential risk of calamity. Life went on in the simple belief that the worst would never happen. It did and it was only a matter of time.

It isn’t just the failure to recognize the risk of natural disaster that threatens humanity. Perhaps an even greater threat to the survival of modern society is the failure to acknowledge the risk of human miscalculation when it comes to issues like war, basic economic and social needs, and the loss of vital resources essential to life itself.

Within a few days, the President of the United States will speak to the nation and the world about some of these issues. The question will be whether he is willing to acknowledge the real and complex risks associated with each or whether like the nations of the Bay of Bengal, he falls back on the simple belief that nothing can go wrong.

Iraq is about to reach a point of no return. If, as the President insists, it goes ahead with elections for the new transitional government on January 30, the hope is that there will be a huge moral and political victory for democracy over violence and terrorism. The real danger, however, is that the opposite may happen – that these elections will only increase the political polarization and divisions that are driving the violence in the first place. Badly timed and ill-prepared elections can set back the prospects for democracy.

Brent Snowcroft, the former national security advisor under President Bush’s father, said recently that the election “won’t be a promising transformation and it has great potential for deepening the conflict…we may be seeing incipient civil war at this time.”

Although the President countered that the “elections will be such an incredibly hopeful experience for the Iraqi people,” there are many in and out of the Administration who believe that neither the Iraqi military or police units are up to the job of providing adequate security for the election and beyond.

In crisis, democracy doesn’t just emerge through a sudden moral conversion of warring parties to principles of freedom and the rule of law. Iraqi political and social leaders, not the United States, must be convinced that the election process is fair and credible for all factions. If one section of the country is left excluded and embittered, we will all be losers.

Will this risk be openly acknowledged and dealt with by the President or will the United States blind itself to the terrible political, social and human calamity that Iraq can become? This may not be a tsunami but it clearly is a disaster in the making.

Social Security is another one of those explosive issues that is crucial to the survival and dignity of millions of elderly citizens in our society. It faces a financial dilemma that could damage its viability for the future.

Social Security provides guaranteed retirement benefits on a predictable formula to all retirees regardless of their status in our society. With more than 78 million baby boomers retiring by the end of the decade, the cost of retirement benefits is expected to rise much faster than the payroll taxes from active workers.

According to the Social Security trust fund’s latest projections, the cost of benefits will start to eclipse payroll taxes by 2018. By 2042, the trust fund will have used up its reserves and payroll taxes will cover only about 70% of the promised benefits – leaving a longterm fiscal gap of $3.7 trillion over the next 75 years.

President Bush and Republicans argue that the solution is to change the basic program itself – to convert much of Social Security from a government guaranteed program to a system of individual savings accounts and private responsibility. These accounts would be funded by anywhere from $2 to $3 trillion in additional borrowed money.

The Democrats say the basic program is sound, that it is not in crisis, that it can easily be fixed by tweaks to payroll taxes and benefit formulas, but have not offered any specific proposal for fear of offending important constituencies.

Both are wrong. While it is not the desperate crisis that the President would like to portray, neither is it the minor problem that Democrats would like to believe. Personal accounts will not solve the fiscal problem of Social Security, indeed the additional debt will only make matters worse, and simply tweaking taxes and benefits alone will not be enough either.

The only effective answer is to repeat the approach of the 1980s – to appoint a truly bipartisan commission of credible members of both parties and the key constituencies affected and hammer out a legitimate compromise endorsed by all sides. If this does not happen, partisan and ideological efforts to fix Social Security will surely fail and millions of retirees will face an uncertain future.

History warns us that when once powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. As the noted author Jared Diamond has warned: “peak power essentially means peak population, peak needs and peak vulnerability.”

The downfall of past societies has often occurred because of the damage people have inflicted on themselves – through the loss of vital resources and the failure of societies to provide effective political, economic and social responses.

In this New Year, we have assumed that the United States is the land of unlimited plenty, and so we have practiced the kind of unrestrained consumerism that is no longer viable in a world of finite resources. For leaders to advocate that we can continue to exploit resources without recognizing the consequences of global warming, depleted oceans and deforestation is to risk our very survival.

In the wake of the tsunami that caused so much damage to societies abroad, it would be well for us to recognize the deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading for failure. Leaders who isolate themselves from the consequences of their actions or fail to recognize the risks and needs of all citizens are destined to fail.

Unlike past civilizations, our global society today is the first with the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of failed societies.

Ignoring the clear risks of dangers that exist and convincing ourselves that nothing can go wrong, will result in certain calamity just as surely as it did in the Indian Ocean. If, on the other hand, we are willing to honestly address the threats we face, to reexamine long held core values that no longer make sense when conditions change, we will not only save our society, we will save our ourselves.

Leon Panetta’s column appears every other month in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside 93955.


© 2005 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources.
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