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NOTIONS: Piddling and diddling en route to doomsday

July 14, 2008

On July 4, my college-aged sons came to visit. We grabbed a late lunch, talked for a while, and sat down in the family room to await the big party in the neighborhood courtyard.

Austin and Zach got out their laptops and started browsing. I turned on the TV and started surfing. I landed on HBO's production of "John Adams."

As we watched, the Continental Congress was in session in 1775 and 1776. The delegates-during and between meetings-were arguing various concerns.

One issue was whether to declare independence at all. Adams of Massachusetts was in a hurry. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina wanted to slow down and keep negotiating with the mother country. As the delegates dawdled and debated, the British kept shooting, bombing and otherwise killing more colonists.

Another anxiety arouser was slavery. Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and their Declaration-drafting committee wanted the practice to cease. They included a provision condemning slavery and the slave trade. Rutledge worked successfully to remove it.

With this divisive issue deferred, a new nation was born. But procrastination came at a price: another 90 years of servitude for African-Americans, a democratic republic that was far from democratic, a bloody Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans and racial strife that lingers to this day.

That night, my parents came to join us. They brought with them a letter they'd received from their congressman, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana). He was responding to their plea that he support a House bill giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco products.

Among his reasons for opposing the legislation: the FDA is too busy right now and can't be bothered with this responsibility (which ignores the fact that the proposed legislation is self-funding via tobacco-industry fees, but that's another column for another day).

In his letter, Buyer admits that "we still have work to do to better our nation's health." Yet by his opposition to this bill, he implies that it's OK to dawdle and debate over our public health responsibility to control the only consumer product without basic health and safety regulation-and the only one that's fatal when used as directed.

That procrastination will come at a price: At the current rate of 400,000 deaths per year, smoking will kill more Americans in two years than were killed during the entire Civil War.

The next day, my wife and I went to see the film "Wall-E."

An animated feature from Pixar, "Wall-E" is a love story set in a future where our planet has been rendered uninhabitable.

The year is 2700 or so, and Earth's survivors literally float fat and happy (they're too obese to do anything else) in mobile La-Z-Boys aboard a space ship. All day long, they slurp liquid and stare at shopping-channel screens-all brought to them by the Big Brother mega-retailer that passes for societal governance.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, which was abandoned by humans in the 22nd century, the air is choked with pollution and debris. Fiery explosions erupt. And the only signs of life are a lone cockroach and a single green plant.

Amid this din, the title character-a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class (WALL-E for short)-spends its day compacting trash.

After the movie, we talked about all the dawdling and debate over global warming and the environment.

I remembered how, during his 1992 presidential campaign against Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush mocked Al Gore as "ozone man."

And a few days after seeing "Wall-E," we learned from an AP story that Vice President Dick Cheney's staff had censored a Centers for Disease Control report intended for Congress that cited the human health hazards of greenhouse gases.

Will the price of procrastination be as dire as "Wall-E" suggests? Time and our propensity for inaction will tell.

Procrastination ran rampant last week.

The Obama campaign launched a TV ad criticizing a Bush-McCain offshore oildrilling proposal because it "won't produce a drop for seven years." (As though we won't need oil then.)

On the other hand, reported The Washington Post, some Democrats questioned Obama's decision to discuss Social Security, saying the program should be solvent through 2041, so why bring it up?

"From the standpoint of the Democratic Party, I would think it would make the most sense to leave it alone," said Dean Baker, an Obama supporter and co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. "It's not an immediate, pressing issue." (As though my kids won't need retirement money 30 years from now.)

Yes, we face immediate, pressing needs. Yes, they bring short-term gratification and, sometimes, re-election.

But if we continue to piddle and diddle on the big stuff-from disease prevention to the environment to retirement planning-the body count will continue to rise and Pixar will prove fortuitous: The Wall-Es of the world will, indeed, be the only ones left to wallow in our wasted opportunity of a world.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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