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Time to Cast Aside Political Apathy in Favor of Creating a New Vision for America

August 19, 1996|GARY CHAPMAN

It's political convention season. But as Ronald Brownstein, national political correspondent for The Times, writes in the current issue of Fast Company magazine, "The men and women creating the new economy won't be watching."

Many leaders of the high-tech industry have given up on the two major political parties, if not politics altogether, writes Brownstein. They regard both parties as hopelessly out of touch with the high-tech economy.

Brownstein describes an emerging tug of war between two new political philosophies: the "cyberlibertarians" versus the "techno-communitarians." The first group is disgusted with government and politics and perhaps even the nation-state; they want a revival of rugged individualism and Social Darwinism a la Ayn Rand.

The second group of business leaders believes the country will move forward only if we take everyone along as a team. But they use the jargon of "total quality management," that managerial fad that is skewered in Dilbert cartoons.

Brownstein writes that this debate will "define the political order of the next century and the next economy."

Well . . . maybe. Leave aside the fact that, unlike Bill Clinton, most leaders of the high-tech industry would look comically out of place in a poor African American church. Leave aside the fact that most high-tech industry leaders can only dream about having the gravitas that Bob Dole acquired long ago as a young war hero. Leave aside the fact that most Americans wouldn't trust these guys to run anything other than a computer company.

For too many of the young and middle-aged men now directing the "new economy," history started with the invention of the microchip. Or at least it "rebooted." This is the sterile utopia of the high-tech elite today: that the remainder of history will be merely an uninterrupted pageant of technological upgrades, and, because of this, government should simply be a handmaiden to this happy prospect.

In this vision, no grander or higher calling awaits us or our children than to be a frenzied mass of faxers, e-mailers, Web surfers, meeting-takers, viewgraph makers, commuters, shoppers and couch potatoes. Contemplating such a future, it's difficult to remember that we're talking about the same country that produced Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower, LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr.

The U.S. is the world's leader in high technology and science not in spite of our government's public vision, but because of it. The idea that the world's oldest and most vibrant democracy should be reduced to merely managing a consumer economy would have struck the Founding Fathers as bizarre and abhorrent.

The proposition that there is something "old" or archaic about our politics, something to be discarded like obsolete floppy diskettes, is absurd. Our political system deals with timeless principles of justice, freedom, equality and the character of our heritage in a far more profound way than anything that can be done by the private sector.

It's the lack of understanding about this nobility of public service, among our best and brightest, that is at the root of our problems--the exact reverse of what most of these young men now believe.

Because of the wave of selfishness and amour-propre among the affluent of our country these days, the status of the U.S. as a historic beacon of democracy is threatened. Entrepreneurs are making millions off the Internet these days, a technology funded by ordinary taxpayers over many years. But there is no new Internet on the horizon because of the Scrooge politics of those who are now so contemptuous of public investment.

Think of the challenges facing future generations. The world cannot survive the spread of the Wal-Mart ethic of consumption to China, India, Southeast Asia and Africa, yet our discourse and our economic models are completely dominated by assumptions of unlimited growth.

The planet cannot continue on its path of rising inequality--not only within nations but between nations and regions--without horrific conflicts that will employ increasingly deadly weapons and heartless terrorists. Yet our culture seems to be adjusting to perpetual inequality and insecurity.

We know these challenges will not be solved by "the invisible hand" of market economics. Developers of computer operating systems get up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking about operating systems, not war, peace or justice. Facing up to the largest challenges of the next century won't be possible with only a "business model" or better technologies. What's required is moral leadership, moral education and bold, capable hearts. This is precisely what is so rare in American society today, and everyone knows it.

We have a historic opportunity now for a genuine public vision for science and technology policy, after decades of dedicating most of our investments to weaponry.

We could commit ourselves, as a great and rich country should, to building an environmentally sustainable global economy, extending human knowledge, helping the world's poor, protecting and expanding freedoms and civil liberties, giving dignity and prosperity to workers and enriching democratic citizenship.

Such a vision could stem the drift of so many young people into nihilism and cynicism. It would give us all reason to be proud, and it would give more of us rewarding and meaningful work. It would make us all real citizens, the most precious and hard-won label anyone can claim.

Will someone with such a public and noble vision for our country please stand up?

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at

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