You and your team doubtless have a long list of priorities, many stemming from the current economic recession; despite this, I hope you find the time to address a few issues, issues which, in the long run, will determine whether we have the time and luxury to address the remainder.
One such issue is the nature of American democracy. I have nothing but respect for the framers of the Constitution, but, as an outgrowth of that, I feel that Americans have a responsibility to assess whether the system we have still addresses the realities of American life and allows people to actively participate in government, if they so desire. Our system should reflect the changes that have happened over the years as well as take advantage of the technologies that have come out of the Information Revolution. I think that there are a number of such technologies (blogs, social networking websites, and web-capable handheld devices, to name a few) that could potentially increase the degree of involvement in governance at all levels. My wife proposed the idea of allowing people to choose to vote on specific issues by interest, and I think that step would not be so far away from where we are (except, perhaps, for a desired shift away from instances of voting on an issue because it’s on the ballot, regardless of the level of knowledge of the issue) as it looks. Like her, I, too, believe that part of the key is, as I learned in AmeriCorps, to allow people to volunteer or, in this case, participate based on their interests and expertise. I can imagine a world where people sign up for RSS feeds that give them regular updates on the policy issues that matter most to them. I know that the technology is capable of far more, but we need to start a discussion on this topic before we can figure out just how far it can go. We would also need to improve technological literacy before we can get there, since it would be unacceptable for citizens to be left out because they lack the skills or the technology to fully participate. Still, using the available technology to inform citizens in an effective and timely way seems like a good place to start. In the long run, I would hope that such participation would eventually allow citizens to participate on an equal footing with special interest groups- not because “special interests” are inherently bad, but because citizens should not have to participate in such groups for their voices to be heard.
Progress in how we participate in democracy, however significant, will mean very little if the yoked issues of energy policy, environmental stewardship, and scientific exploration are not addressed effectively. In order to do so, however, we need to, as Steven Covey puts it, “begin with the end in mind”. We need to decide what kind of world we want to bequeath to the next generation, or, preferably, even farther than that. We need to decide how we want to be remembered and what is truly important. I know that, personally, I want the next generation to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water. I want them to be able to go out into nature and see functioning ecosystems, and I want the diversity of nature to remain as intact as possible, given the changes taking place in our world. I want our society to be one that thinks about the “big picture” and designs their cities and towns accordingly, one that lives in and among nature instead of outside of it. I want as many people as possible to have access to food, shelter, energy, and technology. I want humans to have the tools to explore the entire cosmos, starting with ourselves and the planet Earth, in far greater detail than we can imagine today, and I want them to use that knowledge to improve their quality of life and enrich their own understanding.
Though energy prices have been trending downwards of late, energy policy is something that we desperately need to address. It’s not just about becoming carbon-neutral or reducing emissions by a set amount. To do that is to do no more than study to pass the test. We need to understand how efficiency and renewable energy sources serve the best long term interests of our world and ourselves. It does no good for higher education to nurture technologically-competent graduates if those graduates cannot then find high-quality jobs; strengthened efforts in these areas hold the promise of creating such jobs not only for recent graduates, but those already in the job market, as well. Given global energy trends, there is a real opportunity for America if we choose to lead the way in developing and adopting alternative energy sources and improved resource efficiency, energy and otherwise. The advantage of globalization in our current situation is that, if we lead, others will be compelled to follow, and I believe the job of the federal government in this case is to overcome industry’s “static friction” and get it rolling en masse towards doing more with less. Once it gets rolling and the benefits start to accrue, I don’t think there will be nearly as much questioning of whether it was worth it.