Promises, Promises

John P. McManus

Byline: John P. McManus

The topical but almost inadvertent theme of this issue of American Demographics, at least on the surface, is promises. A promise – something somebody or some entity offers, good or bad – very often lies at the root of human intention, motivation and behavior, as consumers and voters. The value we place in what is offered, plus the belief we have that the specific value will in fact be delivered, together become predictors of how likely we are to act, favorably or unfavorably.

We know fear is a consummate motivator, too, and greed, and envy. The question is: does fear motivate people to act in concert with others who share that fear, or separately as free agents? And does the prospect – or promise – of a feared outcome bond people in solidarity and purpose? Or is such a dread, by nature, an isolator or polarizer that fractionates people into self-preservation cell networks?

With our partner Zogby International, we asked likely voters not only about what they hoped for on the eve of this month’s presidential election, but what they feared. Our Washington, D.C. analyst Alicia Mundy notes in her Voter 2004 piece “The Morning After” (page 20): “Are Americans more afraid of a Bush or Kerry win? Voters are virtually tied at 45 percent and 44 percent, respectively, and the subdivisions represent ‘the usual suspects.’ … A majority of self-identified investors, whites, Republicans, Protestants, born-again Christians, rural voters, Southerners, mid-Westerners, and married voters are more frightened of Kerry. Poorer, East Coast, ethnic voters and Democrats fear Bush. Catholics are evenly uncertain.”

Interestingly, while voter opinions appear to coalesce more dramatically around what people fear (“more war in the Middle East or more terrorist attacks”) than what they hope for (“peace in the Middle East”) one can only wonder whether those fears amount to an emerging constituency and imperative or a hive of self-interests. And one can only wonder about the effectiveness of all that money spent by the candidates as their campaign messages prey on people’s fear of the other guy versus people’s hopes in their promises. Maybe their promises too often ring tinny.

The granddaddy of promises to Americans is entitlement, particularly to access to the nation’s health resources to the end of our days. How realistic those promises continue to be is a challenge we must join Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in raising: “As a nation, we may have already made promises to coming generations of retirees that we will be unable to fulfill… If as history strongly suggests, entitlement benefits and tax credits, once bestowed, are difficult to repeal, consideration should be given to developing a framework that recognizes that potential asymmetry.”

In other words, either stop promising entitlement or stop deluding people into thinking they don’t have to act now, formidably, concertedly and with great sacrifice, to avoid a catastrophic over-demand and under-supply scenario in tomorrow’s health-care environment. As Jim Taylor and Florence Comite observe in “Blood Sport: Do-or-Die Time” (page 34), America’s health care, present and future, is a complicated hive of interests working asymetrically, a-systematically and at odds with one another, and without sufficient cognizance of mapping backward from 2020 to the present moment and making a plan. Instead, it’s promises.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Copyright by Media Central Inc., A PRIMEDIA Company. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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