Inconsequential? Is that the best we can aspire to?

In announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential campaign the other day, Texas Governor Rick Perry stated “And I promise you this: I’ll work every day to make Washington, DC as inconsequential in your life as I can.”

Hmm. Somehow it seems that the Founding Fathers might have envisioned a higher bar. Here’s a quote from the Declaration of Independence: “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Securing rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seems important somehow. Fighting two World Wars to keep the world safe for democracy? The Monroe doctrine…standing up against Europe in favor of self-determination for the Americas? Suffering through a Civil War to end slavery? And more? Doesn’t all that matter? Did George Washington promise to be inconsequential? Abraham Lincoln?

What’s more, we are a young country, but nevertheless old enough to have experienced a few swings of the pendulum back and forth between strong and weak centralized government. And what we’ve seen is that either extreme can be ugly. The weak government of the late 1800’s allowed the emergence of the robber barons. The weak regulation of financial-sector excesses of the 1920’s contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Problems with the welfare state of the 1960’s were sufficiently visible in the 1970’s to lead to the correction of the 1980’s.

So I consulted a good friend of mine, an African American who served in this country’s armed forces, a social and political conservative, also of a Republican bent, and respectful of Perry’s record as governor. A person whose views I value, on a range of issues. What did he think? “The most favorable interpretation I can give Perry’s remark is this…that he’s calling each of us back to a sense of individual responsibility for our actions, and our predicament,” he said.

Not bad.

It’s easy to see that “consequential” shouldn’t mean “burdensome.” And it certainly seems that top-down, centralized command-and-control policies have run their course.

But what then might replace these? How might government, in the 21st century secure basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Here’s one candidate: foster innovation.

Now by that I don’t mean “pick winners and losers.” Virtually all analysts and economic experts agree that industrial policy of this type rarely works. Governments worldwide, not just here in the United States, have a poor track record when it comes to picking economic sectors to subsidize. So it may not pay, for example, to subsidize solar power or wind energy[1].

No, by innovation we mean basic research: the research funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and EPA; the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Transportation, and more[2]. The innovation funded by these agencies over the past seventy years helped win World War II and the Cold War, made great strides in human health and health care, got most Americans off the farm even as America became breadbasket to the world, made America the greatest economic power of the day, and in the process, contributed to world peace by raising living standards everywhere around the globe.

And the means for fostering this research has been to provide resources at the state and local level, rather than in Washington DC per se. The commercial success of Boeing, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, the major oil companies, and virtually the whole of American production of goods and services also have their roots in government investments in basic research.

This innovation is a long way from running its course. With our fundamental principles of government “deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed,” it can and should be the crucial hope for a country of only 300M people that dares to be a primary, responsible, and respected player in the 7B-person world of the 21st century.

Arguably, the most important and urgently needed innovations are in the area of better understanding and capitalizing on the Earth as a resource, preventing degradation of the environment and ecosystems that serve us so well, and protecting ourselves from natural extremes.

But there may be additional innovation needed as well – the same social innovation that marked the founding of the United States back in 1776. The United States is in the midst of another great experiment on a grand scale, a social experiment, redefining the role of centralized government in a way that both Republicans and Democrats might find attractive. In that role Washington agencies will likely provide less in the way of regulation – and more in the way of resources and incentives that would make Americans’ natural creative energy productive. Resources will primarily be in the form of knowledge: knowledge about how the real world – the atmosphere and oceans, and the land and solid Earth – works. Information on agronomy, integrated water resource management, and energy technologies. A sound knowledge base on the world’s ecosystems, biodiversity, and how these are maintained. Information on hazard climatologies, and meteorological forecasts on all time scales. How Communities, corporations, and individuals are putting such information to good use all across the country and abroad.

Of course, all the seed money for this research and innovation, so vital to America’s future, producing jobs, improving health and safety, etc., stems from the discretionary part of the federal budget. Right now, in our refusal to touch entitlements or raise taxes, we’re planning on making cuts here.

Then we might yet succeed in making Washington – and our country, for that matter – inconsequential.

[1] But then, by the same token, it doesn’t necessarily pay to subsidize corn-based ethanol for motor fuels, or subsidize fossil fuels by ignoring their environmental costs.

[2] Sometimes it’s asserted that only NSF, NASA, and NIH fund such basic research, but the fact is that much of the research funded and carried out by the so-called mission agencies shares this same character.

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