Thursday, October 11, 2007

Trying to Start a Fight

I am becoming more and more of an activist as I get older. The more I read about our government policies (foreign and domestic), the angrier I become - at both parties. Climate change, disastrous fiscal policies that my kids and I will have to pay for and an underfunded social safety net (e.g. social security and medicare) worry me - because they will one day, perhaps dramatically, affect my life and, more importantly, my children and grandchildren.

Still, I sometimes wonder if I get too worked up about these issues. I have many friends as smart or smarter than I am that also care about this country, the world and the security of the future. But I seem to talk about these issues a little more than most of them (though definitely not all!) - and I tend to take actions that leave some of my friends both surprised and a little amused - such as emailing my Senators when I get particularly fired up.

I read a column by Tom Friedman yesterday that argues (admittedly quite anecdotally) that what I am observing is part of a trend in my generation. We definitely care. We very often act (e.g. volunteering, joining the Peace Corps or Teach For America). But we are relatively unengaged in politics and government.

This greatly worries me.

I strongly suspect that the best way to guarantee a meaningful professional life is not to join the State Department or a Congressional Office, but to work in a effective social enterprise (e.g. The Gates Foundation or Teach For America) or to earn a lot of money in the private sector and give back financially. I know that many of my peers have made the same calculation and acted accordingly.

While a life of government service - particularly elected politics - opens up the greatest potential for impact, the path to reaching that potential is dominated by distractions and events that even the most talented and dedicated cannot control. In short, some of the smartest people in our generation could effectively be wasted over the course of a lifelong pursuit of a Senate seat or the Presidency. Realizing this, many of our best leaders are going elsewhere to serve and find fulfillment.

I was once asked how a nation of 3 million people could produce Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Adams and Hamilton while their 300 million present day successors could not seem to produce a single comparable talent.

I just do not believe it is true.

The world, and the United States, has its share of geniuses today - many more of whom today than ever before are living lives that allow them to use their gifts. They are just choosing another venue to serve.

That being said, the government, due to the unmatched resources it commands, will be essential to any major progress we make. Therefore, our generation must become more engaged. We need more intelligent and selfless people to run for office and advise elected leaders. More importantly, we need a broader movement of increased engagement. Perhaps our own version of the AARP would be ideal... but as a start, people need to start paying a little more attention, writing their Congresspeople (it literally takes 5 minutes now - see the links on this blog) and talking about these issues with their friends and family.

People complain that we have had no strong options among our political candidates. Perhaps this is usually true - but it is a belief based on some gross assumptions. Most people take no time to listen to, much less study, their candidates today.

Our generation's Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson could be participating in their respective party's Presidential debates or running for the Senate in Illinois or Virginia today and most of us would never even know it!

This is beyond unacceptable in a society with virtually no barriers to information and substantial leisure time.

I do not worry about the talent or integrity of my generation. I have met many of the future leaders of this country and other nations. They are better educated, at least as talented and I believe even more informed about our national and global challenges than their parents and grandparents were at their age.

But they must become more engaged today.

We are distracted with unprecedented professional opportunities, constant media entertainment, global information flows enabled by broadband Internet and an unbelievably dynamic consumer based economy.

We need to make more time to pause, think about the future ....and fight for it. Otherwise, the nation and world we will one day lead will be hamstrung by problems being created and ignored today. If this occurs, all of our preparation - our education, our accumulated wealth - will be spent fixing problems instead of making progress.

Do something.

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