Addicted to Denial

Few countries would want, as their national bird, an ostrich with its head firmly in the sand.   Yet more and more countries would seem to qualify.

In Brazil, this week’s elections pivoted in part on the devastating impact in Sao Paolo of the worst drought in 80 years, which has led to water cut-offs, water trucks under police escort, and Sao Paolo’s main reservoir being drawn down to only 4% of its capacity. How could the situation grow so dire in one of the wettest countries on Earth?   The answer: Denial.   For many months, the PDSB political party, which controls Sao Paolo state, refused to admit a problem or implement water rationing for fear it would hurt the chances of Aecio Neves, the PSDB candidate in presidential elections.  But as the drought has continued, the policy has backfired, with Neves held accountable not only for the drought but for PSDB’s mismanagement of water supplies, and losing out in the presidential poll.

Brazil’s PSDB is not alone in preferring denial of a problem to taking action to solve it. Indeed, that seems to be the preferred strategy for leaders facing difficult issues.   Citizens of Europe and the United States were assured that there was no risk of Ebola spreading outside of Africa – until cases appeared in Madrid and Dallas, where denial had produced a lack of preparation among hospital staff to deal with infected victims.

Such denial is familiar to workers in Europe, who have been assured by their leaders that austerity policies are working and leading to economic recovery – until news came this month that growth was still anemic and many European states had slipped back into recession. In the U.S., economic policy-makers similarly deny that their measures to deal with the impact of the 2008 recession have failed, pointing to a fall in unemployment as evidence of their success.  But they ignore the fact that labor force participation rates remain well below their levels before the crisis, and that real wages have not recovered and private debts remain high.  If the core of the Great Recession was excessive debt and stagnating incomes, then we are still in it, and denying that does no one any good.

Throughout the year, European and American foreign policy leaders strived to deny the extent of Russia’s role eastern Ukraine, labelling the movement of Russian troops and armaments onto Ukraine’s territory merely an “incursion.”  The risks to stability in Iraq from the Islamic State were similarly underplayed, leading to utter shock when IS took over large chunks of Iraqi territory.

Of course, the greatest and most prolonged denial is that the U.S. faces any risks from climate change, or that there is anything that we can do about it.   Despite the rising losses of U.S. land to seawater incursions in Florida and Louisiana, despite the damage caused by tidewater flooding during hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, despite the visible movement of dozens of species northwards and the resumption of steady upward temperature rises (summer of 2014 is now officially the hottest summer ever recorded), denial that climate change exists continues apace.

Even on the most basic domestic issues, with problems well-supported by facts, the majority of politicians and the public are happy in their denial: for example that much of U.S. infrastructure is dangerous and lags well behind our economic competitors in China and elsewhere, or that health care in the United States is twice as expensive as in most other developed countries and produces worse outcomes. (The Commonwealth Fund has ranked the U.S. dead last in its survey on the quality of health care in developed nations in every survey since 2004; the U.S. is first in spending per capita but 11th out of 11 in Access to care, Efficiency, Equity, and Healthy Lives).   Yet politicians constantly block spending on much-needed infrastructure, and conservative pundits complain that any government interference will ruin the best health care system in the world.

There was a time when America and other nations rewarded the media and scientists for identifying and publicizing problems that affected their security, health, and well-being; and they rewarded politicians who competed to provide the best solutions. Yet those days seem gone.  Today the highest pay goes to spin-doctors who can obfuscate or create plausible deniability about problems or our ability to respond to them; and politicians seem to feel safest if they can simply deny a problem exists, at least long enough to pass the cumulating crises on to their successors.

Whether it is on health care, economic growth, real wages, epidemics, threats to international security, our climate or our infrastructure, the public and the media should demand that problems be acknowledged, and that responses – even if painful – be undertaken before crises become overwhelming.

Denial is more comforting, of course, than tackling a difficult problem and taking measures to stop it from growing.   However, as Brazilians in Sao Paulo have come to realize, as they now face not only water shortages but the threat of electricity rationing and massive layoffs from industrial facilities that lack power and water because reservoirs have been drawn down to where they can no longer produce hydroelectricity, it is much better to face up to a problem and implement plans to deal with it before it becomes an insurmountable crisis.  Ebola and ISIS are only the two latest cases of small problems that grew far more dangerous while leaders denied the risks.

Truth is dangerous and often hard to find. Still, when problems first become visible, people should not be comforted by politicans’ denials, but be suspicious and questioning.  We need to find leaders who can act like far-sighted eagles, not ostriches.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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