A rendezvous with destiny
“I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy … geography … commerce and agriculture in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music and architecture …”
That quote from a letter to his wife is John Adams’ 1780 version of a human vision which has become a big part of the American Dream. Most of us today still believe in making the choices and sacrifices that will help our children and grandchildren have a much better life than we have today. We want to provide a basis for them to be not just materially better off, but also culturally, spiritually and humanly.
It’s the legacy we owe because it’s the one we inherited from our parents and grandparents. They worked on farms, in factories and retail shops and went to war so we could become entrepreneurs, business owners, engineers, economists, doctors, etc., so our children can study literature, architecture, arts and music.
In our own cases, as economists and policy analysts, we learned we must practice politics as Adams did (but fortunately not war) because our professional studies showed us that our generations’ abilities to pay forward the legacies we inherited are now severely challenged by the turns America politics have taken.
Consider the economic progress made in the last century and the human wellbeing gained from it. A three-minute coast-to-coast telephone call available only between phone company offices in major cities cost three days’ average wage 100 years ago. Today it costs either nothing (included in our monthly rate) or so little that we don’t even know what it costs – we just make it without even thinking about cost. And instead of going to telephone offices, we call from anywhere we please — a car, beach or restaurant — to wherever the other party is.
Ron’s 85-year-old mother, who started as a barefoot Dust Bowl, Depression-era Kansas farm girl without phone service or other basic amenities now talks on her cell phone regularly to her granddaughter 1700 miles away. Geoff’s two small children can see and speak to their East Coast grandmother thanks to the technology he carries in his pocket.
Similarly, a century ago people spent 25-30 percent of their income on food, almost all eaten at home from quite limited local products and requiring great preparation and clean-up time. Today in the dead of winter in Nevada’s high desert you get the richest variety of worldwide produce in Winnemucca or Australian lobster at a Basque restaurant in Elko. And the total cost of food is down to about 10 percent of the family income, with half of that spent at restaurants, many with great atmosphere and service.
Also in the last century, U.S. infant mortality has declined by roughly a factor of ten.
Until roughly the time of Adams, economic and human progress was so slow as to be a non-factor in people’s lives. Because he and other American Founders built on and improved their British social, political and economic legacies, America has experienced tremendous growth. They left us the rule of law, limited government with separation of powers, personal liberty and individual rights, strong property rights and high levels of economic freedom that made it all possible.
However, all that has eroded significantly in the last half century, as government now highly taxes and over-regulates nearly every aspect of our lives and businesses. That has helped produce in the last eight years the lowest sustained rates of growth since at least the Great Depression, with the prospect of more of the same for the indefinite future. America was a Camelot of freedom, opportunity and prosperity, but it will decline unless we make great changes to restore its foundations.
Ronald Reagan said, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us that we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”
That’s why we do politics.
Ron Knecht is Nevada’s elected controller and Geoffrey Lawrence is assistant controller.