Thursday, August 9, 2012

What to Tell Your Children About the Future

Tell them that the four men at the table next to me in a Palo Alto coffee shop are planning a venture investment fund they want to start in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where budding engineers and computer scientists are bursting into bloom at the University of Michigan. Tell them that a woman who came by my table to say goodbye is moving to Albany, New York to lead a biomedical research team that SSNY is letting her set up. Tell them that Gabby Douglass won gold in London by leaving home at fourteen to live near her coach in another state, where on some days she felt like the only black person in town.

There are plenty of stories now about college graduates who can’t find work. Plenty more stories about people who are so poor their children don’t get a fair shot. It’s unequal out there. Income and opportunity are not evenly distributed. It would be nice if there were a utopian fix for that, but there is not.

There is that drive within us, though, that makes me hopeful. Given a chance (and sometimes when not, when we have to make one), we want to do things. We want to solve problems. We want to compete. We want to be the best.

So a question I have been asking myself is not why are we like that--I leave that to evolutionary psychologists--but rather what conditions foster and support our being that way, what conditions make it most likely that our society as a whole can benefit from our individual desire to excel.

The answer, I think, is freedom. Freedom to choose. Freedom to take our shot. Freedom to fail and try again. No barriers.

See, that’s what we’ve been telling you, my Tea-Party friends say. And they’re right. I take my freedom for granted. Nothing (but me) has ever blocked my path. Indeed, it is only from the redoubt of my freedom that I am able to urge compassion for the less fortunate.

I’ve read The Road to Serfdom. I can see where Hayek (Granddaddy Libertarian) was coming from. But this is not 1943. Hitler and Mussolini are not running over Europe.

Nevertheless, there are threats to freedom today. Not totaliarinism. Not even spirit-crushing bureaucracy. The threat is symbolized by our Congress. The threat is doing nothing. The threat is not investing in our future. 

It is our national infrastructure that has made us the land of liberty, that has made freedom available to more than the landed gentry. It is our national infrastructure that makes it possible for venture money to flow from Silicon Valley to Michigan. For a Californian to move to New York to build a biomedical research team. For Gabby Douglass to go through Iowa on her way to London.

The underpinnings of our freedom are public safety, a healthy and well educated citizenry, and public support for commerce. Police and fire protection. Roads. The power grid. Clean water. Scientific research. Broadly distributed and affordable food. Good free education. Affordable health care. A little something in a rainy day fund for when you fall on hard times and need a little help getting back on your feet.

If we do not invest in these things, if we do not continue to make them broadly available to the public, they will not disappear, they will simply become attainable by only those who can afford them. Private tutors and private security forces. This is the way things worked in feudal Europe (you remember Europe, the place we don’t want to be like). A time of benevolent (or not) monarchs, toiling peasants, and revolutions. Entertaining to visit in movies, but not a way of life many of us want to return to.

1 comment:

  1. Nice Mac. I only winced a little when you used the terms "affordable" and "free". At least you didn't say "fair share"