“We can’t get to the $4 trillion in savings that we need by just cutting the 12 percent of the budget that pays for things like medical research and education funding and food inspectors and the Weather Service.”
President Barack Obama, June 29, 2011 press conference
Work’s a grind.
Pressure to meet or exceed performance goals. Pressure to cut costs. Pressure to deliver on time. To deliver more. To deliver more with less. Static pay. Staff cuts. Coaxing one more day out of aging equipment. Shift work. Red tape. Unsatisfied customers and users. Displeased bosses. The relentless slog of the 21st century workaday world provides daily invitations to tire. To grow weary. To burn out. To flag. To lose heart. To despair.
Worse yet, that same 21st-century world doesn’t seem to notice, or care. Where’s the outcry? A sign of support? A recognition that things are amiss? Any demand for balance, or for fair play? Where’s the merest word of encouragement or appreciation? Where’s the respect?
It’s been thus since time immemorial, and in all walks in life. Thoreau observed that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That was over 100 years ago. Go even further back? The Old Testament sage observed that all effort, all work, was vain and meaningless, “a chasing after the wind.” That said, it nevertheless seems that the 21st century has taken on-the-job stress, dysfunction, frustration, and meaninglessness to unprecedented levels.
It’s all too easy to see the workplace through this lens.
The proof to the contrary? It’s all around (maybe more on that sometime down the road)…but today’s remarks by the President of the United States are a case in point.
Note what the President is doing. He’s making an appeal to the American people, all 300 million. Asking us to think: how are we going to deal with a massive federal debt and continuing deficit? What should we do? $4 trillion! A sizable sum! A big problem (more about that in a moment).
Well, he had some thoughts about what we should do. We might agree or disagree.
But he thought it important in his argument, in making his case, to start by listing some examples of some things we would all agree we shouldn’t do. Note that these were his prepared remarks to start off the press conference. He wasn’t just making statements off the cuff. He had thought long and hard about this part.
He said that we don’t want to stop the effort to make our lives healthier and free of the scourge of disease. We don’t want to skimp on educating our kids, giving them a shot at a brighter future. We don’t want to cut corners on public safety – whether the wholesomeness of the food we eat or the weather threats we face daily.
Living on the real world – dealing effectively with the world as resource, victim, and threat – made the short list.
Two points about this short list. First, the president thought long and hard about this part…what to include? But he wasn’t just interested in the logic of it as he saw it. It wasn’t about him. He was trying to bring Americans together. He deliberately and carefully chose examples (from many logical candidates) that would ring true to every American, not just a few. Examples that would need no explanation. Examples that would brook no objection or protest.
And he chose the Weather Service.
Second, the examples he chose were a shorthand. So he talked about medical research, but he meant not research per se but the larger public good behind it, the vision of American free of disease, vibrantly healthy, enjoying life. In the same way, when he spoke of the Weather Service, he meant the larger effort accompanying it, all the work on land use and building codes and communication of warnings and emergency response and monitoring river flows and tsunamis and air pollution and water quality and climate threats that are the necessary means to the desired end – our national and global well-being in the face of hazards. He meant the role of weather science and services in protecting our food supply from weather’s vagaries. The role of weather information in supporting surface and air transportation. And much more.
Tomorrow, you and I will return to work. Some of us will be extracting resources – wresting a living from the planet. Water. Food. Energy. Ore. Some of us will be protecting the environment and ecosystem services that make our lives possible and worthwhile. Some of us will be coping with the Earth’s hazards. We may be doing this in government. Or in the private sector. Or in academia. Or as volunteers. Domestically. Internationally.
When we do enter that office or that workplace, let’s not be cynical, or dismayed. Let’s be upbeat. A sitting president and the people he represents have said our work matters. They’ve got our backs. They’re working on giving us the tools we need to do our job. Like that satellite system we need to build (see the Stephen Stromberg piece on the Washington Post website). And let’s not think that no one is watching. Or that no one cares. The president is watching. The American people are watching. Just as they’ve been watching all along.
And, just as the American people – really, our families, friends, and neighbors, when we think about it – have our backs, let’s watch and protect them. Let’s continue to do all we can to keep them safe, and prosperous, and preserve their environment.
Oh, about that $4 trillion dollar of savings we need? America’s been in the hole before. During the Great Depression. At the end of World War II. During and after the Civil War. We came back then. We’ll do it again.