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Failure to Plan = Planning to Fail


Sometimes a look at our past can provide an illuminating window into our present, and our future.

Case in point: While keeping up with the news regarding the current president and the accompanying contagion that has infected us for the past two years, you may have missed this story in the news--Faced With Drought, the Pharaohs Tried (and Failed) to Adapt.

It’s true. Tell old Pharaoh. Researchers at Tel Aviv University have found that ancient Egyptians used the science of their time to anticipate drought. They then used planning and policy to prepare for these conditions, which shows “how recognizing and preparing for climate disaster can make societies more resilient.” While the Egyptian empire did eventually collapse, the research shows how the leaders were able to stave off this demise for about 50 years.

One of the more mundane, yet critical, attributes of a good leader is the ability to manage resources effectively. Think of some American presidents in this context. George Washington leveraged the human resources in his first cabinet to develop policy precedents for the new nation, and his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton conceived of how the country could develop its natural resources to become an industrial power. Six score and ten years later, Abraham Lincoln mobilized military and manufacturing resources to prevail in the Civil War. He and his fellow Republicans, invested in infrastructure, such as roads and dams, to help build the country further.

Theodore Roosevelt preserved many of the country’s natural treasures while also fighting against the hoarding of wealth and financial resources from the privileged class. Franklin Roosevelt oversaw the reallocation of resources toward those in need and established the precedent of safeguarding Americans’ financial security through old age.

History also provides useful counterexamples. The pre-Civil War presidents Pierce and Buchanan traditionally get the nod as our worst leaders ever, for failing to use their political power and allowing the slavery problem to fester. Now we have a president who has surpassed them in historians’ pantheon of failures, only this time the issue is not failure to act, but rather intentional malfeasance.

Let’s go back to the Pharaohs. The research cited above shows that they used the evidence at their disposal to meet the environmental challenges of their time.

Hmm. I see relevance to our current world. Does anybody else see it?

If you’re with me, you have correctly identified Exhibit A of our current failure to plan. As an even casual reader of the news is well aware, science has shown that climate change is real and threatening the planet’s future. So what is our current Pharaoh and his team doing about this? Besides its well-documented scheme to double down on the dying coal industry, it has decided to go backwards on the progress we had made toward fuel efficiency. This is policy made by people who see the future only through the narrow scope of self-interest. How can I make things better—for myself? How can I appeal to voters—who already support me? How can I (EPA Secretary Pruitt) keep a lid on relevant science--so that I can position myself for whatever office my ego is focused on at this moment (Oklahoma governor, US Attorney General, POTUS)?

Exhibit B is closer to home. The main artery of my city, New York, the subway system, is creaking to a slow death because of aging infrastructure, years of wear and tear, and destructive underinvestment. Moreover, the borough of Manhattan is overcome with too many cars in a finite space. Do the math. More vehicles on the same roads = more congestion. That’s basic arithmetic.

Now move on to calculus. How can we reduce the number of these vehicles while tackling our first problem, subway degradation and lack of resources? The answer is congestion pricing. Make vehicles pay tolls to enter any part of Manhattan south of 60th Street. Any money raised goes directly to the transit system. Fewer cars enter the congestion zone, and the tolls paid by those that do enter provide desperately needed funding. Moreover, fewer vehicles make the air healthier to breathe. This idea was floated by Governor Cuomo several months ago, but then he barely fought for it in the state legislature, and it is not included in the state’s budget. The best they can do was a small bite of the pie--a surcharge on fee-for-service vehicles.

Assemblyman David Weprin, a Queens Democrat, has taking pride in opposing this plan, and practically gloated afterward—a fine response by a man who has effectively made the conditions in his city worse. He fought congestion pricing under the misguided perception that he was helping his outer borough constituents. Look, I’m an outer borough resident, and I sometimes drive into Manhattan. If congestion pricing becomes a reality, I will think twice about making that trip—and that’s a good thing! I may take the subway instead of putting my car on the road. And if I do drive, I’ll at least know that I’m providing a bit of funding for public transit. But for now there is no plan, so I can clog up the busy Manhattan streets to my heart’s content.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is a recourse against politicians who raise self-interest to a high art. Vote: make your voice heard, and make sure others you know do so as well. Organize: leverage your individual power by joining a group that is advocating for similar ideals. Flip: find a local election that is close, and work to support the candidate of your choice.

Four millennia from now, the names of these small-minded, self-serving political officials will be long gone from the record, and even what was once a giant bloated name on some hotel marquees will disappear. What will future researchers, presuming humans exist, make of these follies? I suspect that the Egyptian pharaohs will come out looking a whole lot better than our modern ones, who, by intentionally or negligently failing to plan, are actively planning to fail.

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