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Kicking the Can Down the Road

I once made a list of all of the procrastinators that I know. When I found my own name at the top of the list, I decided to change the subject and move on to something else. There is now scientific study of procrastination, who procrastinates, why they do it, and what the consequences are.

The general view is that procrastination is “self-defeating behavior.” But some people feel it is productive, that what comes out in the end is better. I like this second theory better, but have grave doubts that it’s true.

Why do we procrastinate? Now there’s a tough one.

I think I am a typical procrastinator. The reason that I put things off is pretty simple: I don’t want to do them. Sometimes it works, and the thing that I don’t want to do just goes away. Or, at least, it seems like it went away.

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Governments and leaders also like to procrastinate, and often they do it for the same reasons. They don’t want to do whatever it is that they are supposed to do or needs to be done. The current cliché for describing this form of procrastination is “kicking the can down the road.”

This approach has its greatest appeal in democracies because those in power usually think that the next guy is going to be left holding the bag. And, since, as typically flawed human beings, these leaders are as delusional as the rest of us, they always think that someone else is going to be “the next guy.”

The problem with kicking the can down the road is pretty obvious. At some point, the road ends, and the can can’t be kicked any further. To mix metaphors, the chickens come home to roost, and the can turns out to be full of worms. A related problem is that it is often hard to see the end of the road, so we tend to think that there are at least a couple more good kicks before the clock runs out.

There are lots of them, but the best current example of chronic can-kicking is the situation in Egypt. For several decades, anyone who looked could see that the Egyptian political system was in a state of advanced and accelerating decay, and that the country was a demographic time bomb.

In the early 20th century, Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, another rotting system, were tagged “the sick man of Europe.” The only reason that Egypt wasn’t labeled the 21st century’s “sick man of the Middle East” is that the whole region belongs in a social and political intensive care unit.

But year after year, it was easier, in the name of “stability,” to kick the can down the road, to not confront the decay, for the United States to continue to pump billions of dollars into Egypt to protect Israel. This, in turn, enabled Israel itself to become a world leader at self-destructively kicking the can down the road.

Nobody knows how events will unfold in the immediate future or over the next decade or two, but the strongest likelihood would appear to be a region that will be unrecognizable in today’s terms. The stability achieved by kicking the can down the road is likely to produce the greatest possible long-term instability.

There are lots of examples of this practice closer to home. Whether it is the economy, health care, the nation’s infrastructure, energy or, most ominously, climate change, the can has been kicked down the road over and over again.

In the Virgin Islands, the constantly deferred issues include education, political and governmental reform and pensions.

All of these problems receive lip service, but little of substance happens, a process that feeds cynicism about any possibility for change. Cynicism is just one of the unwelcome fruits of can-kicking.

Why does this happen? It is the role of leaders to define problems for us, to then propose solutions and, finally, to lead us in the direction of those solutions.

The easy answer would be to say that we need better leaders, but there is a problem with this approach. Americans, including Virgin Islanders, are only interested in one kind of solution to our problems: the kind that costs them nothing and doesn’t inconvenience them.

And when the solution will inconvenience a powerful corporate sector, the chances of positive change diminish almost to the vanishing point.

In this context, kicking the can down the road takes on a whole new meaning. The leader – if he or she wants to remain the leader – has to be “optimistic.” Pointing out problems and the costs of solutions is such a downer. Who needs that?

We want someone like Reagan who tells us we’re No. 1, everything is going to work out fine, and that it’s all going to be cost-free. Look at what happened to President Carter when he laid all of that depressing heavy duty stuff on us. Let’s keep it light.

President Obama seems to have gotten the message, happily failing to mention either poverty or climate change in his recent State of the Union message.

For the Virgin Islands, there would appear to be three big “cans” that should no longer be kicked down the road: education, government reform and pensions. Each of them is a “time bomb” of sorts, and none of them is going to go away or improve on its own.

It would be simple to say that the territory cannot afford to miseducate another generation. That would be false. It couldn’t afford to miseducate the previous generation, but it did.

It would also be simple to say that the government seems to be bubbling along. And it is undeniable that real improvement has taken place under the current administration, but the structural and performance issues are so profound that they will require more focused action and an end to denying the severity of the problem.

Finally, it is increasingly clear that there is a nationwide public pension crisis looming. The previous form of denial was to take the view that everyone else is doing the same thing, as if this meant that things would work out. So the can was kicked down the road year after year, to the point that we now may be facing a social calamity.

It is time to look this issue straight in the face, but it does not appear that GERS is either structured or emotionally inclined to do so.

The starting point for dealing with any problem is to name it. Then it is important to define it correctly and understand its consequences. The third step is to describe the choices that we have and clearly communicate them.

If kicking the can down the road is a choice, people should at least be treated as grownups and understand what the consequences of doing so are.

If people understood their choices, it is possible that leaders would, in fact, be able to lead.

Frank Schneiger
Feb. 1, 2011

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