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Building For Tomorrow (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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Europe is still on my bucket list, so I’ll never see Notre Dame as she was before last Monday. But, as horrific as the flames looked against the Paris night, the dawn brought renewed hope that a landmark that is centuries older than our country can be restored.

Even before arson and terrorism were ruled out as causes for the fire, disappointing legions of eager online conspiracy theorists, philanthropists and corporations from around the world had pledged hundreds of millions of dollars and euros to help save an edifice that symbolized more than the human imperative to glorify God. Notre Dame is a showcase of technological innovation, of art and science in collaboration, of teamwork and, perhaps above all, of long-range vision.

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral and suggested that it could be done in five years. Experts say that timetable is unrealistically optimistic and was, perhaps, mainly intended as a rallying point to comfort a nation in mourning. Racing to rebuild seems almost contrary to the spirit in which the cathedral was originally constructed, taking nearly two centuries at a time — 1163-1345 — when a laborer had a life expectancy of about 45.

But the spirit of the 21st century is not just hurried. There seems to be an astonishing lack of vision or foresight, as if there is no tomorrow, much less generations and centuries to come. And there may not be; the Christians who built Notre Dame were also awaiting the Second Coming, but they kept building anyway.

This resistance to long-range planning is pervasive in every unit of our modern society. Families are woefully unprepared for predictable, inevitable expenses. As of 2017, according to the Federal Reserve, 40% of American adults didn’t have $400 set aside for an emergency. A study conducted for Northwestern Mutual a year ago found that one in five Americans had no retirement savings at all, and a third of baby boomers — all of them now at least 55 years old — had no more than $25,000 in retirement savings.

Institutions have also failed to plan for the long term. Who was in charge of thinking through the skills shortages and debt crisis that would result if the cost of higher education inflated far faster than wages for decades on end? Noted: We’re still spending vast sums on football palaces even as more and more parents are looking far enough into the future to consider that gridiron glory might not be worth the risk of CTE.

It’s almost piling on to point out how utterly lacking in vision American politics has become. Social Security, the most forward-looking of all entitlement programs, will deplete its trust fund in 2034, its 99th birthday, without congressional intervention. And while the fix is mathematically simple, it seems politically impossible to mandate more money in or less money out. (Depleting the trust fund is not the same as insolvency, but it’s definitely not a desirable position.)

On the other hand, our society does seem to put more emphasis on old folks who vote than on children who can’t vote right now. We also can’t seem to make infrastructure a priority, no matter how many presidential candidates run on it. It’s as if we know that we should be investing in the future, but we don’t want to sacrifice anything in the present.

Last Monday, the last day to file federal tax returns, the official Twitter account of Republicans in the U.S. Senate bragged about tax reform giving Americans “more freedom” to “decide how to spend their money” without acknowledging that this was accomplished by piling billions more in debt onto future generations. Ronald Reagan, whom Republicans used to revere before they found a shiny new leader whose morals and values they clearly prefer, called this “the temporary convenience of the present.”

Many prominent Republicans — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell among them — have accepted the idea that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it. We’ll never know whether it might have been mitigated if warnings like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had been heeded a decade and a half ago. (Despite the hoopla, the U.S. has not technically withdrawn from the Paris agreement on climate change, and can’t technically do so until the day after the 2020 presidential election.)

A couple of years ago, independent Arkansas journalist Steve Brawner wrote a beautiful column titled “Time for a new ‘ism’ — ‘future generationism,’” in which he suggested a political goal that all could share: “… that our descendants must always be a primary consideration, not an afterthought.”

Like the builders and rebuilders of Notre Dame, let us aspire to a better future, even if we won’t be here to see it.

Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
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