When my sister and I were kids, my Dad had a silly poem for every occasion. One I particularly loved went like this:
The other night, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish to heck he’d go away.
Even as a little kid, I understood something of this poem’s Escheresque logic. Today, I think of it mainly during political campaigns.
I keep looking for the man, or woman, who isn’t there.
On the ballot.
Let me tell you a little about my imaginary candidate who isn’t there.
This candidate understands that elections are about the future, not the past. He, or she, offers a vision of an America – and a planet – unlike anything we have ever seen before. That vision reflects, as it should, our history and our heritage. But it is not a memory.
History moves in only one direction. We can’t go back to an America when a high school graduate with a good work ethic could get a well-paid factory job and stay on until retirement. Or when gasoline was 19.9 cents a gallon. Or when a visit to the doctor cost twenty bucks.
The candidate who isn’t there speaks in terms of an America equally great, equally free, and perhaps happier than the America we remember – but it is also an America we could actually build under the changed conditions of a new century.
Next, the candidate who isn’t there understands that the greatest dangers we face have to do – not with terrorism – but with declining natural resources, rising global population and climate change.
For seven decades, Americans have been fighting wars and subsidizing dictators in order to secure our supply of oil. Now, other bidders, including China, have entered the competition for these increasingly scarce resources, and nothing we can do – by military force or even by the most egregious degradation of our nation’s environment – will long sustain an oil-based economy.
The candidate who isn’t there knows that energy conservation and renewable energy have become a matter of survival.
Beyond today’s struggle for petroleum lie greater dangers. The combined pressures of overpopulation, famine and climate change threaten to begin two processes - wars over fertile, well-watered land, and mass migration from the world’s poorest countries to its richest.
The candidate who isn’t there points to the recent nastiness in Darfur, which had less to do with religion and ethnicity than with desertification - forcing nomadic herdsmen to invade the lands of their agrarian neighbors. Darfur was the canary in the coal mine, and our candidate knows this. We are entering the era of water wars.
The candidate who isn’t there speaks honestly about jobs. In the 21st century, a job - in the sense of working full-time for a single employer - will become increasingly rare.
More and more Americans will move into the role of independent contractors or small-business owners. We will shift from being a nation of employees to a nation of entrepreneurs.
Handled properly, the transition to this new economy is nothing to fear. America was founded by people who didn’t have jobs. Of the Founders who declared independence and wrote the Constitution, very few worked for anyone but themselves.
Economic independence could introduce an era of greater individual freedom - but only for those who have the educational background to function independently.
Our candidate also knows that, in an era of near-miraculous medical breakthroughs, the rising costs of health care and longer life-spans will require universal health coverage – probably through some sort of single-payer plan – and powerful controls on waste and profiteering by providers of medical goods and services.
The candidate who isn’t there speaks to us honestly about Federal deficits – including those of Social Security and Medicare. For too long, we have insisted on passing these deficits on to future generations by refusing to pay taxes to match our spending. We can no longer afford this. We must raise government revenues through a radical simplification of the current income tax code – and through targeted taxes which generate a maximum of revenue while doing a minimum of harm to the economy.
Finally, the candidate who isn’t there reminds us of two things.
First: We are all in this together. We must succeed or fail as a nation – not as struggling classes or interest groups.
Second: While government exists to do those necessary and proper things we cannot do for ourselves, the fact that a government program has long existed doesn’t mean that program should exist in perpetuity. The necessary and proper role of government changes. Sometimes, government must enter a new realm of activity.
But sometimes, it’s time for government to go away.
In the end, the best government is neither big nor small. It’s athletic – strong, flexible, agile.
At least, that’s what I heard from the candidate that isn’t there.