“From the cockpit, this is your captain speaking…”

If you’ve read the April 5 and March 30 posts, you know that we’ve been working (maybe even overworking?) an analogy between (1) our plight as seven billion people moving pell-mell into an opaque future, and (2) a commercial jet aircraft flying through cloud, without radar, threading through mountain peaks (unharmed, so far), seeking a safe landing.

The idea is that all seven billion of us are in it together, just like those passengers on the airplane. As a society, we are making major and minor decisions, and taking actions accordingly, every day. We make choices about our sources of energy (coal? natural gas? oil? wind? biofuel? nuclear?). We make choices about where to farm and what to grow. Whether to grow for local consumption or for export abroad. Whether to grow for food and fiber, or for fuel. Whether to drill for groundwater and irrigate, or dryland farm. Whether to use genomically modified crops and heavy applications of pesticide, or go organic. We sink billion-dollar investments in critical infrastructure – in pipelines and roads, sewage systems, and electrical and communications, in banks and hospitals and schools. We commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to live on the outskirts of the city or move in town. We make billions of penny-decisions daily, like turning off the lights when we leave the room, or not letting the tapwater run needlessly.

And the awful truth? We call these “major and minor decisions” but our ability to distinguish between the two extremes is pitifully primitive. We don’t even know for sure whether many of these actions and the strategies behind them help or hurt – foster future prosperity or foreclose our options. We debate the advantages of hybrid vehicles or electric cars over gasoline or diesel engines, but important pieces of the calculation, like the true costs of the electricity, or the source of the energy for those vehicles, elude us. We argue about the environmental costs of using and washing china and silverware versus disposable plates and utensils, but come away uncertain. Nuclear power looks good one day, and then after Fukushima we’re a bit less sure. What matters? What’s inconsequential? We have no more idea than those pilots flying the plane. Did that course change of a few degrees one way or another take us away from a mountain peak, or into one? Do we feel lucky?

Ah, the pilots. Let’s focus on them for a moment. If you and I are the passengers in the main cabin, obliviously going about our quotidian pursuits, then the leaders of our country – the President, the Senators, the members of Congress (and the lions of industry) are the pilots.

And while you and I might occasionally glance out our side windows and realize that we can’t see the ground, that we’re socked in, we might reasonably be excused for being badly informed of the reality that the pilots have no radar. We might be forgiven for assuming that their will to live is as strong as ours, for believing that they wouldn’t do anything so insane as to fly a plane into the mountains at low altitude and high speed without full knowledge of what’s ahead.

But the pilots have no such excuse. They know the full degree of their ignorance. They realize the dangers. [That’s why presidents, who take office in full vigor, rapidly age before our eyes. They learn truths, contemplate uncertainties, and bear burdens no one should carry alone.]

So, what are our pilots doing in this circumstance? They’re shutting down the engines.

You heard me. They’re shutting down the government.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’re turning off the engines at this time. So relax, sit back, and enjoy the sudden, eerie quiet.”

Some might argue that government contributes nothing to society’s power – only to its noise. But take air travel (since it’s on our minds here) as one small example. Were we to really shut down the National Weather Service, the aviation community would suspend operations five minutes later. And the public would cry “enough!” in another five.

One more arena where the government enables our economy? Keeping the currency strong and stable. Senator Coburn (R-OK) had an interesting op-ed in today’s paper. He decried what he referred to as a shutdown not of the government (for that should soon pass), but of the economy itself.

The problem as he sees it? Our leaders are reluctant to address the structural problems with our national debt – the unsustainable size of the entitlements, the large portion of budget spent on defense, and the cost of servicing the debt, which could balloon at any time should international confidence in the dollar wane. Danger awaits. Our leaders’ denial when it comes to facing the long-term, more serious problems, and foolish frivolity with respect to the near-term continuity of government operations, puts all 300 million of us at risk. And we share blame – for failing to hold them accountable.

Bad enough to shut down the government in middling times – and such was 1995. Reckless to let it happen in perilous times as these, with the Middle East aflame, oil prices spiking, economies still devastated by 2008, and the reverberations of the Sendai earthquake still sending aftershocks through the globalized economy.

And those mountains are still out there somewhere, shrouded in cloud…waiting.

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