Wait not for your country to do for you
On tossing out incumbents, deflecting asteroids, and listening to Ben Franklin's complaint about timid legislators
Every two years, Americans are given the option to fire every member of the House of Representatives. It's an option we seem to exercise on a rolling basis: Not tossing them out en masse, but generally replacing them at least every decade or so, on average. The threat of replacement should keep Congress responsive to the interests of the public, but what if the public is insufficiently motivated to care about the things that actually matter in the long run -- as in, over a period longer than the median tenure of a member of Congress?
■ Benjamin Franklin, reflecting on his time as a lawmaker before the Revolutionary War, observed cannily that "Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion."
■ This unwillingness to execute on new projects rears its ugly head often today, just as it did a quarter of a millennium ago (yet more evidence that human nature is mostly unchanging). But what are the the occasions that might force some necessary innovation to protect our interests in the long term?
■ America generates unfathomable riches (basically 1/4th of the world's total each year), while sitting on unrivaled military power and the most productive system of innovation anywhere. We have a unique duty to point these huge advantages in the right direction over the long term.
■ Sometimes resources are pointed in the right direction -- as when NASA successfully proved the concept of deflecting an asteroid. At other times, we remain passive or inert well beyond the point of excuse: Failing to keep a well-organized effort for pandemic preparedness probably cost many lives in 2020. And there are times when a problem may itself elude a straightforward answer (as with the massive violations of human rights conducted by China in Xinjiang), but where one problem is embedded within and intermeshed with others.
■ The choice remains ours to demand that each Congress look ahead farther than its own term, or even farther than an individual's likely maximum tenure. But that requires taking the job of voting seriously, not like some idle team sport. We should know by now that waiting for measures to be "forced by the occasion" often ends up being both costly and unsatisfying. We have no shortage of meaningful problems to address. Who will act like it?