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Platt: Still a time to believe in the future

In 1953, Bernard Baruch, a financier and advisor to Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, made remarks on CBS Radio entitled “Why I Still Believe In the Future.”

His words have been repeated and reprinted many times since. As I surveyed the results of the last election and the anger of those who voted — and of those who didn’t — I recalled Bernard Baruch’s remarks. When I did, I couldn’t help but reflect on the optimism that those words evoked during a time in which, as now, frustration, anger and cynicism of the people of our country dominated the media landscape.

Exit polling of the voters in this “change election” (and for that matter in the change elections of 2006 and 2008) as well as the public opinion surveys that preceded and followed them all foretold the pessimism that clouds the outlook of more and more of our country as we approach Thanksgiving 2010.

Perhaps that pessimism results from recent reports that for the first time in history the newest adult generation in the United States is neither as wealthy nor as educated as its parents. But is that sufficient to justify the combination of voter apathy and voter hostility that we witnessed in the last election? This writer doesn’t think so.

No, there is more to it than that. As New York Times syndicated columnist David Brooks has pointed out “The heart of any moral system is the connection between action and consequences. Today’s public anger rises from the belief that this connection has been severed in one realm after another — private and public.”

Wall Street financiers send the world into recession and don’t seem to suffer. In fact they get “bailed out.” Neighbors take on huge mortgages and then just walk away when they go underwater. Washington politicians make promises that they can’t and at times don’t try to keep, yet they are returned to office even as they fail to live within their means. Federal and state regulators fail to do their jobs and get rewarded with more responsibilities.

But is that any worse than what Bernard Baruch described in 1953 as “The thunder of war, the stench of concentration camps, the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb and the threat of a terrible holocaust clouding all of our tomorrows.” As Baruch said, “These are not conducive to optimism.”

Despite this metaphorical dark cloud cover, Baruch proclaimed in 1953 and thereafter: “My faith in the future, though somewhat shaken, is not destroyed. He then explained: “I sometimes doubt that man will achieve his ‘mortal potentialities,’ but I never doubt that he can.”

Baruch based his optimism on his faith “in the power of the human mind to cope with the problems of life.”

“To nothing so much as the abandonment of reason does humanity owe its sorrows,” he concluded. “Whatever failures I have known, whatever errors I have committed, whatever follies I have witnessed in private and public life have been the consequence of action without thought.”

Isn’t that what we are observing now in our politics, particularly at the national level? “Talking Points” have replaced thoughtful analysis because talking points are perceived by the political class as a way to get elected officials re-elected. Thoughtful analysis, particularly when it is accompanied by a willingness to negotiate, is too often seen as weakness deserving of rejection at the polls. Why?

We will explore that in forthcoming columns. In the meantime, the words of W. Edwards Deming, an expert on quality control, provide food for thought over Thanksgiving dinner. Deming often said, “If most people filling a particular job are performing it badly, something must be wrong with that job.”

That insight clearly applies to politicians as much as anyone, particularly to those who persist in fighting over national problems rather than solving them. Furthermore, that insight seems to be increasingly shared by the people who in the last three elections have sought change but have not so far succeeded in obtaining it.

Bernard Baruch would say we can in fact solve our problems by placing our trust in the reason, wisdom and compassion of the individual, and not in crowds, political parties, tea parties, and interest groups. Let’s be thankful this holiday season for that. We’ll explore how to do it later. Happy Thanksgiving!

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a regular column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com.