A call for courage in 2013

There may be a temptation to coast through 2013. After all, we survived the end of the world last month, and if we can get through that, many people would like to believe that we have earned a respite. That do-nothing approach is probably the worst possible option. In truth, we have coasted for too long. 2013 needs to be a year of courage and choices.

Scanning the globe, one can’t help concluding that there is a deep-seated desire of people around the world to have more say about their lives.

Whether manifest in the “Arab Spring” or the “pick your color” revolution, this yearning reflects something basic and fundamental about humanity. People are prepared to sacrifice, fight and even die for the right to control their own destinies. Democracy remains their dream.

The courage and determination demonstrated by these protesters and the sacrifices they are willing to make are even more remarkable given the appalling performance of so many elected officials in democratic countries. They are not living up to expectations of the people who have elected them to office. Many elected officials throughout the developed world seem to have forgotten their purpose.

This year they should aim to rediscover their mission and remember the reason they aspired to public office. Pick your capital and it is difficult to find leaders actually dealing with the critical national problems that they have been elected to resolve.

In Beijing, the new leadership plays lip service to the corrosive force of corruption and the extraordinary environmental devastation that pell-mell economic development has wreaked on China. But launching a media campaign and restricting air pollution monitors are no substitute for real action.

In Tokyo, Washington and other Western capitals, elected officials continue to reward voters with benefits that go unfunded. People may prefer the Scandinavian welfare state to the more stripped down American version, or vice versa. But whichever option is chosen, in principle recipients should pay the real costs of the program.

It is poor accounting to pass costs on to future generations. It is cowardice and a lack of leadership that provide gimmicks to voters rather than facts and relies on sophistry instead of plain speaking.

Politicians must trust the voters’ intelligence to make informed decisions. They must tell the truth to their constituents and quit pretending that benefits can be delivered for free.

In recent years, millions of individuals around the globe have mustered the courage to fight for the right to decide their own fate; it is a cruel irony when elected officials cannot do the same and the potential consequences are not nearly as severe.

The choices that lie ahead are critical ones. In the simplest form, it is about taxes. Yet there are larger issues at stake. In the United States and Europe, fundamental questions about social systems, about shared responsibilities and burdens, must be answered.

Japan too must address this concern, but we have a little more time, even though our debt is the highest among all developed economies.

Another critical choice concerns climate change. Here the “tragedy of the commons” undermines the effectiveness of individual action, but that cannot be used as an excuse to avoid doing the right thing.

Climate change is real and the failure to make substantive changes in our behavior has magnified its effects and made remedial action even more pressing. In 2010, the goal was to cap global temperature increases at 2 degrees Celsius, when compared with pre-industrial times, by 2100. At last year’s Climate Change Conference in Doha, scientists argued that we are on pace to increase temperatures by 5 C.

The failure to act is, quite simply, a lack of courage. Politicians refuse to acknowledge and then fail to explain to their constituents the consequences of inaction. We and they are passing the buck, expecting future generations to pay the price for our self indulgence.

We could go from country to country and catalog the list of failures, but that is a long and depressing endeavor. What is quickly and plainly evident is the gap between the heroism of individuals deprived of the right to shape their own destiny and the diminished horizons of the politicians who walk the halls of power in long-established democracies.

Indeed, there is a collective failure by electors and elected to appreciate the meaning of democracy. There is instead a tendency by both to take it for granted. The result has been a culture of irresponsibility.

In 2013, the challenge is to change. On a wide range of issues, voters must demand that their elected representatives stop pandering to them and acknowledge the very real costs of the decisions they make.

This, of course, requires voters to act upon that knowledge and not punish the messenger. Voters should reward courage and honesty, not punish it at the polls. In theory, it does not seem too much to ask. In practice it demands a sea change in behavior. There is no time to lose.