Our hindsight must be blurred

Linda M. Downing

Hindsight is not always 20/20, but foresight is noticeably missing in our nation. If pride prevents learning from the past, and if fear directs the future, then we are lost. "The sages do not consider that making no mistakes is a blessing," said the 15th century Confucian philosopher Wang Yang-Ming, but he added that wise men correct mistakes and become "new men."

The economy certainly illustrates. This month Janet Yellen, the first woman to ever lead the Federal Reserve, gave her first press interview, assuring us she intends to carry on the strategies of her predecessor, Ben Bernanke. A press report last week was entitled: "2008 records show Fed was slow to grasp crisis." Let's see: Bernanke lead in 2008; Yellen leads in 2014. He was slow to grasp the crisis. She intends to continue his policies. Hindsight is not always 20/20.

Our hindsight must be blurred - or blind. The national debt now stands somewhere close to $17 trillion, the largest in history. Yet, both the House and the Senate voted to raise the national debt ceiling earlier this month. If they hadn't, we are told we could not pay our bills by Feb. 27. The debt ceiling was not raised by a "set" amount; rather, the sky is the limit until March 15, 2015. Where was the opposition? To quote Sean Cockerham of the McClatchy-Tribune, the "Republicans themselves couldn't agree on what to demand."

The national disunity and confusion reflects us. We raise our own debt ceilings by acquiring another credit card to pay off the previous credit card to . on and on . until finally, some of us declare bankruptcy and do not pay our debts at all.

Financial advisors, with almost no exceptions, caution families to stick to a budget, i.e., set a debt ceiling. At the close of 2013 that advice led the list in a Wall Street Journal piece by Daniel Lippman. His second point was to pay down debts. Whether or not he realizes it, Lippman's strategy involves unobscured hindsight and faith-filled foresight.

Why tout this plan for individuals but not for the nation? Another end-of-2013 fact is that we are facing a global retirement crisis. The living standards of the elderly in heretofore wealthy countries is dropping as benefits plunge and pension plans fail to cover the previous tsunami of free spending. This January saw a blitz of news coverage warning that the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else is growing. A British-based, anti-poverty charity called Oxfam reported that the world's richest 85 people have about half the world's wealth.

Hindsight is not always 20/20. World history suggests we are poor to the limits of our poorest; we are not rich to the extent of our richest. It is not for us to dictate how others spend their money; it is incumbent upon us to glean wisdom from the past so that our own stewardship helps instead of hinders the world. Jesus put it plainly: "To whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48).

Two medical reports in February say we have so aggressively looked for cancer that we have overdiagnosed and overtreated. We cannot undo this, but clear hindsight means correction so that foresight is not led by fear. It would be hard to overdiagnose and overtreat our economic mess. No treatment will be effective, however, without clearer hindsight and braver foresight.

Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together-side-by-side.

Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at lindadowning.com.