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The Ethics of Kicking the Can Down the Road

What Does it Really Mean to Kick the Can Down the Road?

I keep hearing politicians use the phrase "kicking the can down the road." Right after he got elected, President Obama said, "What I'm refusing to do and what I've instructed my staff that we will not do is to try to kick the can down the road..." Kicking the can down the road is a universally understood metaphor. But what does it really mean?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York where we used to play the game -- Kick The Can kick the can down the road.  It's a street game where a round of the game is started by someone kicking the can as far as they can, then the person who is "it" has to reach the can before the next phase of the game can start giving the other players time to scatter, hide or whatever is required by the variation of the game. The idea was to catch up to the can before you got hit by a car (just kidding). In an amusing take on the expression, Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter Dan Bernstein talks about an experiment when he placed a can of chicken broth in the street and tried kicking it down the road. Bernstein explains how hard it was to control the can that went off in different directions. He concluded: "It is also a solitary, anti-social activity that, like obsessive video gaming, is potentially unhealthful." Here's Bernstein's amusing take on kicking the can down the road.

 Bernstein relates his experience to a politicians' way to play the game. He points out that "kicking the can down the road is a lot tougher than Washington windbags would have us believe. I bet they've never even tried it! Otherwise, they long ago would have staggered across the aisle to fix Medicare or Social Security. At least they could do that sitting down." That's the purpose of this blog -- to examine the ethics of the practice of kicking the can down the road. You see, I can find an ethical slant to just about anything.

Virtue theory, according to the ancient Greeks, identifies dispositions or tendencies to behave in a certain way as the foundation of virtue. It has become associated with character traits. This is an over-simplification of the theory but will do for today's analysis. A virtous person would never kick anything. It's potentially harmful, even to a can. It shows disrespect for the can's constituency, which would include other cans, people who walk the streets, and those who eat from the can for sustenance. In other words, politicians disrespect we the people when they put off solving problems such as becoming energy independent, fixing our education system, immigration reform, and the fiscal soundness of social security.

Out here in La La land Governor Jerry Brown is trying to live up to the promise he made in his January 31 State of the State speech:  “Kicking the can down the road, by not owning an honest budget, is simply out of the question.” Well it's more than three months and all Jerry is talking about is using short-term solutions to long-term, structural problems. This past week he placed a ban on most travel by state employees unless it is authorized by a senior official. Gee, Jerry, I don't know but it seems to me that sound internal controls dictate that the authorization of travel of a state employee who relies on state funds should only occur after proper authorization in the ordinary course of running a responsible government!

We've been hearing a lot about "American Exceptionalism." I don't think we can consider ourselves in that light anymore unless it's in terms of killing terrorists. I'm talking about exceptionalism in our education system, a fair immigration system, providing for the sick and elderly, eliminating poverty, and a whole host of other problems that we've been talking about solving for as long as I can remember. But, what's wrong with delaying action from time to time? Nothing, unless the delay is an inability or unwillingness to make the tough choices that help solve today's problems today and not leave them for our kids and grandkids.

Politicians have an ethical responsibility to put political ideology aside, drop all pretenses of being on the right side of the issue, and stop calling each other names so we can start to deal with the tough choices we need to make if we are to avoid the downward path of recent years to becoming a third-world nation. No, I don't mean in the literal sense. I'm referring to our failing education system, crumbling infrastructure, and growing dependence of large chunks of our society on public resources. We also risk falling further behind in the race to stay ahead of China as the world's number one economic power.

Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, May 14 2011