Collapse of Mayan Civilization Bears Lessons for Today’s Political Gridlock: News Analysis

You could fill an entire floor of the OMB with unimplemented blue-ribbon committee reforms

Congress’ passage of a payroll tax-cut extension pushes the 2% temporary stimulus reduction back two months, meaning we get to through this political theater all over again before Feb. 29.

The debate over the temporary tax hike engendered intense partisan passions: Republicans worried it would weaken Social Security, which is funded through payroll taxes; Democrats answered that payments were to come from the general fund rather than the Social Security Trust Fund; the housing industry lamented that the measure’s funding through a fee increase on Fannie- and Freddie-backed mortgages would weaken real estate when the economic sector was still vulnerable; labor advocates were looking out for the unemployed, whose benefits were also extended in this bill.

There were other arguments besides these, and Congress has already appointed a supercommittee of sorts to try to address longer-term solution to the problem. It will probably be as successful as the last supercommittee which unceremoniously disbanded after it failed to come to any agreement on deficit reduction, leaving as law poorly conceived measures that take an ax rather than a scalpel to crucial areas of the budget.

The payroll tax expiration in early 2012 brings to mind another expiration expected in the new year: specifically, the end of the world that some sources say was part of the religious thinking of the Mayans who saw Dec. 21, 2012 (or b’ak’tun 13) as some sort of end date. It’s a silly idea and there are no Mayans around anymore to defend it (if indeed this was really their view), but the Mayans really do have something relevant to say to our current political crisis.

And that is that when problems become too numerous and too complicated to solve, we risk the same kind of extinction they faced. The Mayans had a fully developed written language, mathematical and astronomical systems, developed urban centers, sophisticated art and sculpture, and architectural wonders like their temples and stepped pyramids.

And yet their civilization lies in ruins today. Why? Rebecca Costa, in her book The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, says the first sign of civilizational distress is gridlock, when problems in clear view are just kicked down the road for future generations to deal with.

Whether war or global financial crisis, Costa argues that governments today seem unable to cope with long-term problems. And indeed our government has appointed countless blue-ribbon committees proposing policy solutions to long-term problems involving funding for Social Security and Medicare, or for containing our debt and deficits. You could fill an entire floor of the Office of Management and Budget with these ignored reports.

Aside from avoiding known future problems, we’ve also become far more short-term in our orientation. Stanford economist John Taylor, writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, notes that altogether 84 tax provisions were set to expire at the end of this year, 10 times as many as expired in 1999.  

If we are to avoid going the way of the Mayans, our society needs to take a lesson from our past and return to the policy approach that made us great to begin with. New York City is still America’s premier city, owing more to the foresight and vision of people like DeWitt Clinton, whose Erie Canal project made New York rather than Philadelphia the nation’s commercial and cultural mecca, than to its modern-day visionless leadership.

What we need to do is once again make plans for the future–decades in advance–both to avert looming problems and to foster success in our families, cities, academies and industries.

While Washington ideally would be a part of this program, its urgency is too great to wait for politicians. States, cities, businesses and private citizens–anyone possessing a clear vision–can help ensure that needed institutions are created, or kept from expiring.

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