As the Republican presidential nominating process begins, we are being treated to a series of relentless and disingenuous attacks on the idea of government itself. This is combined with attacks on science and the fervent desire to somehow re-combine church and state under the guise of bringing ethics back to government. America's relative religious freedom and its pronounced, though imperfect, ability to absorb immigrants is a source of its greatness. America's diversity, intensity and yes, its freedom has stimulated greatness -- until now. What about moving forward?
In order to know where you are, you need to know where you have been. The right wing analysis of contemporary American life is built on a myth of 20th century history. How did the United States become the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world? It starts with the incredible bounty of our natural resources. It continues with colonization, warfare and a world shaking revolution. That revolution created a political and economic structure that imperfectly attracted, protected and rewarded some of the planet's top human talent. In time, we see a partnership between the government, industry and educational institutions to develop the science and technology that fueled our economic growth. Individuals did not create this nation on their own. They built institutions and lived by rules and values. The American experiment was a partnership that would have failed without government.
The American partnership between government and business started with the land grant colleges and the development and dissemination of advanced agricultural technology. Long before America was an industrial powerhouse, we were the world's bread-basket. Our initial success generated the wealth that enabled public and private investments in science, technology and infrastructure. Roads, ports, trains, and the electric grid were public-private partnerships. Without government involvement it would have been a long time before America enjoyed the benefits of mass produced autos, electric lights and appliances such as refrigerators, air conditioners, radios and television.
More recently, economic growth followed the development of the internet, laptops, smart phones and iPods. All of these recent inventions were built on public-private partnership. The internet began as a Defense Department project. In the 21st century, much of the basic science that improves our lives begins in America's still dominant research universities, and is then transformed into usable products by American and global industry. This economic powerhouse is not an accident but is the result of generations of public policy driven by a deep national consensus.
So last week, we were subjected to the usual attacks on the EPA, evolution, and of course, climate science. How are we going to meet the challenges of developing an economically and environmentally sustainable future if our political leaders pander to fear and ignorance? We need more public investment in science, technology and infrastructure, not less. We need elected leaders who understand the importance of science and technology to our nation's well-being, not political hacks who pretend that scientific fact is untrue. As NY Times reporter John Broder observed recently:
"...while attacks on the E.P.A., climate-change science and environmental regulation more broadly are surefire applause lines with many Republican primary audiences, these views may prove a liability in the general election, pollsters and analysts say. The American people, by substantial majorities, are concerned about air and water pollution, and largely trust the E.P.A., national surveys say."
While Broder's analysis of public opinion is accurate, it is difficult to say what impact another six months of these attacks will have. The attack on climate science has clearly undermined understanding of that complex issue. Fortunately, other environmental issues are more straight-forward. The climate issue is difficult to communicate because the causes of climate change are everywhere and much of its impact is in the future. Air, water and toxic pollution can often be seen and smelled and many of its impacts are short term and local. I have to believe that people will trust their own senses before they believe Representative Bachmann and Governor Perry. They may doubt climate models, but the smell of raw sewage is difficult to ignore.
What is most disturbing about these attacks on the legitimacy of government is that they undermine our ability to attract the best and brightest to government service. Even more fundamentally, these attacks seek to portray government as an entity that is distinct from our community. At its best, government is a reflection of our community. If we don't participate in its care and feeding, we can expect it to act like a neglected child.
While civic-minded people from other walks of life still serve in state and local government, we seem to have abandoned Washington to K Street lobbyists and pandering ideologues. The financial cost of running for elective office has resulted in an endless cycle of fundraising. The kind of people attracted to that line of work may not be the same people we'd like to see running the nation's government.
Sustainable economic growth for America must be achieved on an increasingly crowded and interconnected planet. We need a national government that can intelligently invest in science, technology and the 21st century infrastructure of energy, industry and transport. We need leaders that understand the connection of technological innovation to economic growth. We need leaders that understand the role of government in stimulating technological innovation.
If allowed to triumph, the anti-science, anti-government and anti-tax posture of the Tea Party will destroy America's ability to invest in technological innovation. The next Model T's, light bulbs, computers, and smart phones will be invented someplace else -- and the wealth generated by those new technologies will go to those folks, and not to us.