Where Did We Go Wrong?

In this issue, we’ve taken a page from the Edge Foundation, a brain trust of scientists and intellectuals that annually publishes a book of answers to big, open-ended questions.

Read the companion question:

What Now?

This summer, we wrote to more than 100 of the smartest people we know in the Inland Northwest — writers, politicians, scientists, artists, teachers, conservatives, liberals — and asked them one of two questions: “Where did we go wrong?” and “Now what?” We let them answer the question from any angle, field or point of view they desired. All that we asked was that they try to hone in on something small and specific — in 350 words or less. (We whittled them even further, in order to print as many answers as possible.)

Here are their responses.

We Gave Up on Trains

Investing in roads, barges, and planes — rather than rail — has proven to be a long-term financial loser. Rail gets 400 short ton miles per gallon of fuel. No other form of motorized transportation comes close to that.

For decades, we have chosen to bury our heads in the sand and subsidize far less efficient modes of transportation by manipulating the market to keep fuel prices low and investing in more and more expensive infrastructure for automobiles (at the taxpayers’ expense). We let the railroads die and pandered to the American auto industry. We ripped out trolley lines to make way for cars.

In doing so, we crowded out farmland and habitat, let our city centers crumble and built sprawling cookie-cutter suburbs, parking lots and roads. Everywhere we want to go is at the end of a drive on government-subsidized roads, with artificially cheap fuel. We put our communities into debt by over-extending infrastructure to preserve our car culture — at the expense of our health, farmland, environment, natural heritage, and community values.

People and communities have begun to reprioritize over the last two decades, rebuilding our city centers and trying other forms of transportation. But we need to accelerate this process to avoid further environmental and economic catastrophe.

— KITTY KLITZKE (left) is a community organizer with Futurewise, a statewide nonprofit group promoting healthy communities.
We Pursued Happiness

Following English philosopher John Locke, the First Continental Congress wrote in 1774 that all persons are entitled to “life, liberty, and property.” But when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence two years later, he changed the list of rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is where we, as a country, began to go wrong.
In early American history the problem was not readily apparent.

The pursuit of happiness was an afterthought — something to be pursued once life and liberty were settled. But as America became the dominant world power, and our life and liberty have become more secure, we have come up against a paradox: Happiness is rarely gained by pursuing it. We find ourselves feeling empty, yet convinced that a resurgent economy — or at least a bigger TV — will bring us happiness. The fact is, however, that anyone making over $25,000 a year is already among the richest 10 percent in the world! (You can find out how shockingly wealthy you already are by consulting www.globalrichlist.com.)

Without a higher purpose — faith, service — Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” can become a meaningless quest.

— FORREST BAIRD is a professor, chair of philosophy at Whitworth University and editor of the Philosophic Classics series from Prentice Hall.
We Failed to Question the Dickheads

Where did we go wrong? I’ve been expecting this question.

The answer is 3:43 am, March 5, 1991.

That night we’d had drinks with a friend. The bars had closed and we were sleeping it off when we got a call from a friend of our friend, a man we’d only met that night — a dashing, young, international businessman straight out of a Fitzgerald story.

After we’d staggered home, it turned out, this dashing businessman had been arrested for some drunken infraction and was “in prison.” (We helpfully pointed out that he wasn’t technically “in prison.” He was in jail.)

He said he couldn’t reach our friend and asked us to bail him out. We pointed out that we were a bit short of the $400 bail. He asked how short. We said we had $6. (We were quite poor; rent on our Browne’s Addition studio was $135 a month.)

He said we could go to a cash machine. We pointed out that we couldn’t go to a cash machine because, technically, we didn’t have a bank account.

He said we could use his PIN, take the money from one of his many accounts.

So we climbed in our female-repellant 1977 Datsun 210, which we’d acquired in a trade with our brother for a computer the size of an oven, and proceeded to the first cash machine we’d ever seen, in the vestibule of a bank. We typed in the numbers the dashing businessman had provided us and … Holy shit! The machine spat money! We didn’t know how to use it, so we just got $20 at a time. For an hour that thing spat twenties at us.

Years later, computers are tiny, cars sleek, and our mortgage is 12 times our old rent. And the world’s entire financial system is in ruins … because of us. Because that night, bless our stupid little well-meaning souls, we stood drunk and in the dark and we failed to question a system that magically prints money to bail out greedy dickhead criminal businessmen who probably belong in prison.

— JESS WALTER is a Spokane author and a National Book Award finalist. His sixth novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, will be published in September.
We Trusted the iPhone

Technology’s wonderful opportunities give us a sense of freedom. We commute hours a week, from houses sprawled across the landscape, willing to sit alone in our car at a latte stand waiting to pay 10 times what it would cost to make a coffee at home. Cell phones and instant messaging give us a sense of connectivity to “best friends” many of whom we really don’t know and who live so far away they couldn’t help us in an emergency. Families are splintered. Now the television promotion tells us eating together as a family once a week is good.

Can we turn the wrong around?

Social connectivity is a low-tech solution: eye contact, smiles, greetings, and being more responsible to one’s family, neighborhood, and community.

— BOB SCARFO is an associate professor with WSU Spokane’s Interdisciplinary Design Institute. He is a registered landscape architect and holds a Ph.D. in social geography.
We Gave Into Fear

The United States, like no other nation, aspires to reach beyond tribal fears and create community based on universal values. Yet in our darkest hours, we often listen to leaders who espouse just the opposite. They exhort us to fear — not love — our neighbors. To hold tightly to our excess resources and abandon those in need. Of course, the consequences only fulfill the prophecy: Those feared and rejected by our community turn on us. This cycle of distrust costs trillions of tax dollars every year.

Those are the very dollars that could provide food, health care, and sustainable economic development to our community.

We as voters rarely get a real choice between (on the one hand) feeding, educating and healing people, or (on the other) imprisoning them or defending ourselves from them. If the vote on Spokane’s next $240 million jail levy had an option “B” of spending a smaller amount of money on treatment, education and job training that would reduce the need for a jail, what would we choose? The answer will likely depend on how we view the people being assigned to jail or treatment — are they like our family, friends and neighbors, deserving of redemption?

The cycle of fear and alienation won’t be broken overnight. But we can insist that our public policy is based on what we have in common.

— BREEAN BEGGS is a Spokane attorney with the Center for Justice.
We Got the Question Wrong

Perhaps the question should be, “Where do we get it right?”

The discipline of psychology is deeply rooted in the question: “What is wrong with you?” Sigmund Freud and the majority of his peers and successors focused almost exclusively on pathology, on mental disease and disorder. They focused, that is, on dis-ease and dis-order.

With minor exception, psychology only recently has begun to study mental “ease” and “order.” It is ironic and sadly misguided that we are just now beginning to consider seriously the notion of psychological health as anything more than the absence of “sickness.”

The positive psychology movement asks such different questions about the strong and sacred aspects of our being: How is it possible that humans manage to transcend problems, oppression and pain? How do we move beyond traumatic experiences and translate them into messages with meaning and solace for others? What is it within us that is worthy of positive attention and should be highlighted?

The stigma and shame of problems can subside, as “what is wrong” is simply noted and attended to as one part of the canvas in a work of art that also is in many ways very “right” and characterized by exquisite beauty.

— NOELLE GIFFIN WIERSMA is a counseling psychologist and psychology professor at Whitworth University, where she specializes in the study of secondary trauma.
We Stopped Listening

One of the most beautiful things about helping people with health care problems is that 95 percent of them can be diagnosed by hearing the person describe their symptoms. The health care provider uses their brain to analyze the information and formulate a diagnosis, and then a rational treatment plan.

They teach us this in medical school, and we spend so much of our efforts learning the typical symptoms of different conditions.

Somewhere along the way, we devalued this. We monetarily reward providers for doing expensive tests and procedures that may or may not provide better answers (or sometimes even lead down an errant path), and now the expectation of patients and providers is that tests are better and necessary. Providers let their diagnostic skills go in favor of being a travel agent for a journey through testing.

Health care will be more effective and less expensive when we reward health care providers to take time to listen, think, and strengthen the clinical skills they aspired to in their training years. They, and their patients, need to regain confidence in this process.

— BILL BENDER is a neurologist, chair of the ethics committee at Deaconess and the founder of Spokefest.
We Chose Cynicism

H. L. Mencken once wrote that “a cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”

Cynicism is the compatriot of apathy, paranoia and incivility. It is the enemy of creativity and inspiration. Our challenge is to choose hope over cynicism as we begin each new day. It is only thus that we can have any chance of meeting the challenges which lie ahead.

— EARL MARTIN is the Acting Academic Vice President of Gonzaga University and the Dean of Gonzaga University School of Law.
We Trusted Reagan

In retrospect, I wish Americans had not been so willing to accept the proposition that, as President Reagan put it, “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” That one well-phrased, ill-considered proclamation in 1981 granted us permission to walk away from all sorts of responsibilities that haunt us now.

For example, we had clear warning of the dangers of over-dependence on oil starting in 1973. If we had made sensible restraint on oil use our policy for the next 30 years, neither the oil sultans nor global warming would be the stupendous problems they are today. But we deregulated instead. An unfettered Detroit made billions, oil prices shot up and the auto companies went bankrupt. Now Japan controls the world automobile industry.

Similarly, bank lobbies managed to eliminate controls on credit. Bankers made lots of money, and millions of Americans became over-extended and went broke (along with their banks). Our health care system, which successfully privatized, is now the industrialized world’s bad example.

Those who persuaded us that attacking government was the route to a secure future did not do America any favors.

— WILLIAM STIMSON is director of the journalism program at Eastern Washington University.
We Insisted There Was Only One Way

We “people of faith” have so narrowly defined the path by which others can experience God. What is the “right” way to experience a sacred moment in life? What is “wrong” about sharing our stories and learning from paths that are different from our own?

My own personal life and faith journeys are enriched deeply by the intersecting of the life and faith journeys of people I meet both personally and professionally. As a pastor, I have unique opportunities to hear a broad spectrum of stories shared by individuals who want nothing more than reassurance that they’re not alone in the experience of wanting more of a relationship with One who created them. And yet we who profess to have found a way of faith by which we live are often the most reluctant to share what it is that makes our relationship with the Holy One as rich as we say it is!

If I believe anything in the words of the Hebrew texts that say we are created in the image of God, then I have to allow for God’s imagination to be far broader than my own.

— REV. MARJ JOHNSTON serves on the pastoral staff at Westminster Congregational UCC in Spokane.
We Overcame

Our country’s identity and heritage has been to conquer limitations, overcome what holds us back, and triumph over whatever prevents success. We have defeated the evil of the Nazis, brought large cities to the arid deserts, explored the moon. We have made the improbable look routine.

But this heritage has led us to ignore the need for limits. We have bought what we can not afford. We have disregarded the concept of cause and effect, ignoring anything that might keep us from getting what we want right now.

We have gone wrong by drifting into the mistaken belief that each of us — and our nation — can do what we want to do, whenever we want to, just because we can. And we have forgotten that we must consider the effects of our actions on other people and ask ourselves, “What comes next?”

— MARK MAYS is a psychologist, attorney and a past chair of the Board of Trustees of Eastern Washington University.
We Got the Calculus Wrong

The mistake we’ve made is viewing oil as just another commodity.

Energy resources are the fundamental resources that make economic activity possible, but energy follows laws that are distinct from the rules governing economic activities. Trying to predict the economics of energy while ignoring the laws of thermodynamics — which say that energy resources are more valuable the more concentrated they are, and that such concentrations always deplete — results in enormous errors.

Economics as a discipline is distorted by our species’ temporary access to enormous supplies of cheap and highly concentrated fossil fuel energy. We are now moving into the twilight of the age of cheap energy, and we have no scalable back-up energy source. The significance of this problem in the coming decades cannot be overstated. As the supply of energy available to power our economies increasingly contracts, our economies will contract, even as our population continues to grow.

— MELISSA AHERN has a Ph.D. in economics and is an associate professor at WSU Spokane. Her areas of expertise include global oil depletion and the economics of health care.
We Thought We Owned the Earth

I cannot peg it precisely, but civilization clearly took a destructive detour on the bandwagon led by men who professed they knew more about nature than God.

— RICH LANDERS is the author of regional hiking and paddling guidebooks and the outdoors writer for the Spokesman-Review.
We Didn’t Join Forces

Our region has continually missed opportunities to pursue greater government efficiencies by taking a regional approach.

In the ‘90s, we decided against forming a regional government, we decided against forming a single sewer system (even though most of us live over a single aquifer!), and more recently, when the sheriff’s position and the police chief’s position were both vacant at the same time, we failed to form a regional law enforcement agency.

When every local government in this area has the same types of departments performing the same functions, taxpayers are paying too much overhead. Our region has more than 26 entities providing water to area residents. There are 13 different fire districts/departments. There are at least three different entities providing sewer service in the metropolitan core of our region.

Hey, the economy is struggling. We need to get the biggest bang for every tax dollar collected that we can! We should expect nothing less.

— TODD MIELKE is a Spokane County Commissioner.
We Flunked Economics

I think my fellow economists forgot or failed to communicate to policymakers some of the key insights of the “fathers” of the discipline.

Adam Smith said: “People of the same trade seldom meet together… but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” This is a compelling call for effective regulation where there is not effective competition. Our financial markets should not have gone so unregulated for so long.

John Maynard Keynes warned of the “animal spirits” — the essentially psychological nature of the speculative bubble that arose in real estate. When it comes to markets, what goes up, that far and that fast, must come down.

Adam Smith also said, “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of government as nearly as possible in proportion to their respective abilities.” He’s right. Washington state’s tax structure is wrong!

Intellectually, we may know that the price of something is not the same as its value, but this is easily forgotten. Much economic analysis is still premised on the principles that “bigger is better” and “growth is always good.” This is where we are still going wrong.

— LISA BROWN is Washington’s Senate Majority Leader and represents Spokane’s 3rd District.
We Watered Our Lawns

America has, for the most part, steered clear of the aristocratic temperament of our European allies (eschewing, for example, noble titles and high tea.) But it’s unfortunate that we failed to apply this reverse snobbery to the lawn, an invention of European nobility.

For one thing, these green patches are costing us a fortune. Over half the water used by residences goes into watering lawns. But this cost is a minor concern when compared to the cultural, social and environmental damage done by the lawn, which replaced a vibrant, diverse and interesting ecosystem with a single, uniform invasive species (i.e. grass).

Now, I’m not against civilization or the taming of the wilderness. But the lawn has led to an urban form that’s just plain boring. Lawns aren’t even places so much as buffers from our neighbors. The most time that most people spend in their lawns is to mow them.

Uniform lawns have led to uniform neighborhoods, where anything interesting happens indoors. They value the picturesque over the useful, the diverse and the real. This, in turn, has led to a devaluing of public space and, consequently, public life.

First step towards recovery: Plant a garden.

— JOHN REUTER serves on the Sandpoint City Council as the youngest member in the city’s history.
We Went Right

I have a hard time entertaining the notion that “we” went wrong anywhere. I don’t see world history or contemporary society as processes that once in motion cannot be altered. Rather, life, for me, is an endless series of at-bats. Sometimes we hit it out of the park, sometimes we get a base hit, and sometimes we completely whiff it.

Hitler got it really wrong, but the result of his murderous misdeeds is a Europe committed to preventing future holocausts. Our challenge is not to identify and harp on the problems, but to commit ourselves to correcting the mistakes of the past and doing it better next time.

— LAURA BRUNELL teaches politics, international studies and women’s studies at Gonzaga University.