Meet the New Year, Same As The Old Year

What can we expect of the year ahead? Surprises, no doubt. But plenty of the same old, same old as well. The calendar may change, but things already in train can be expected to roll on. There is inertia in public affairs too.

This seems to be particularly so in our time. Though technology, fashions and amusements seem to evolve at warp speed, our institutions have failed to keep pace and adapt. Often it seems we are living in an era such as that described by the great, gloomy Victorian Matthew Arnold who spoke of a time like ours, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.”

2014 was characterized by one shock after another to which, prompted by news media or partisan rabble rousers, we would devote obsessive all-consuming attention for a day, a week, two weeks. But then the extremely important, life-and-death issue would fade to be replaced by the next. And so on and on.

And since the ills were not really cured but demoted down our agenda of worries, they continued to fester. No plans were laid, steps taken, mechanisms put in place to address them. So, like the Terminator, they’ll be back.

Vladimir Putin and his desire to reconstitute a Russian empire was front page when Crimea and Ukraine blew up, borders were crossed, an airliner was shot from the sky, but we soon moved on to other worries. It is a reasonable guess, however, that Russia has not.

Stewing in a bitter broth of international sanctions and falling oil prices, it is inevitable that more trouble will come from that quarter. And as is our wont, we will be unprepared and taken by surprise.

The midterm elections showed broad dissatisfaction with the status quo, especially regarding the unequal rewards meted out by a mending economy, the high cost of higher education and the low quality of public education, the insecurity of employment in a changing world, the unreliability of promised pensions and benefits. This populist theme was sounded by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and in a surprise best seller by Thomas Piketty.

Will the new Congress make these issues the source of new initiatives or merely package old wine in new rhetorical bottles – tax cuts for the prosperous, service cuts for everyone else? Will a robust stock market be assumed to bode well for middle and lower classes that don’t own stock? Will serious plans be suggested to adapt and reform education, infrastructure, taxation, regulation and research to address changed circumstances? Don’t count on it.

Similarly, the shootings in Missouri, Ohio, New York and elsewhere have reminded us that race and inequality, crime and punishment, the power of the state and the powerlessness of individuals remain flashpoints in this country and demand attention. But after a flare-up we usually return to the status quo ante. Little was done in the wake of Aurora and Newtown to make similar tragedies less likely. And it is not likely much will change in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island.

A flood of dispossessed children in Texas put immigration briefly on the agenda, but a polarized – or paralyzed – nation refuses to address the issue rationally and to devise solutions. So there will be more shocks ahead.

After we spent over a decade warring against terror in the Middle East, ISIS arose in 2914 to mock our pretensions and to remind us that the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. Islamic fanaticism can be relied on to be a continuing story in 2015. It would be nice if our floundering, hubristic response weren’t as easy to predict.

The climate will continue to change no matter how loudly the deniers doubt it. And we will continue to be unable to make the long-term, painful, necessary commitments and preparations needed to deal with the issue.

Ebola was a big deal for a month, but has now been all but forgotten. Deadly plagues, however, are like rust it the old commercial. They never sleep. Is our global health infrastructure up to combating the next pandemic that nature bodies forth? The Ebola experience, by turns hysterical and ineffectual, suggests the answer is no. We are vulnerable because we are connected to the rest of the world by a web of our own making and unwilling to invest in preparedness.

Finally, the last month of the old year brought a reminder that our clever devices have made us prey to those clever enough to turn them against us. Earlier, Snowden showed governments can and do invade our privacy with impunity. The Rupert Murdock, “News of the World” scandal – among others – showed the news media can be expected to invade the cyber space of others if there’s a headline or a buck in it. We have waged cyber war against the Iranian nuclear program. The Chinese hack into our institutions, public and private, willy-nilly, seeking an advantage. Shoppers at Target, JP Morgan, Home Depot and many others have had their data lifted by cyber criminals. And “The Interview” showed how one company could be victimized by cyber malice.

The punch line to most of these stories is the same and comes from “Marathon Man.” “Is it safe?” No. it is not safe as long as feckless governments, corporations, institutions and individuals decline to invest what it takes in time, money, and attention to solve manifest problems. Safety will become increasingly elusive in 2015 and beyond.

Despite all that, Happy New Year. And may you take a cup of kindness, if permitted by your doctor, for Auld Lang Syne.

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