Cyclical events, like holidays and birthdays, give us the chance to reflect on our experience and set priorities. If you realize this Memorial Day that the year went by without seeing a dear friend or taking a vacation, it’s time to make some new summer plans.
The re-emergence of the 17-year locusts in Washington should serve a similar purpose. Back in 1987, when the cicadas last shed their skins, this was a very different country. Ronald Reagan was President. The Berlin Wall divided Germany. The Soviet Union was still intact; the first Gulf War, years away. Fewer than 15 percent of Americans owned computers 17 years ago, compared with more than half today. In the late 80s cell phones were the size of bricks and the World Wide Web didn’t even exist.
As the cicadas hibernated below ground, clinging to the roots of trees, America experienced momentous shifts in the direction of public policy. The welfare system was transformed from a federal handout that encouraged dependency and sapped self-esteem to a diverse array of state-administered programs intended to encourage self-sufficiency. Our country’s school systems witnessed a quiet revolution as states and localities increasingly embraced initiatives that transfer power from bureaucrats to parents. Nearly 3,000 charter schools, innovative voucher programs, and education tax credits all offer parents alternatives to the one-size-fits-all public school monopoly.
Yet appreciating the positive policy developments of the past seventeen years is only part of the story. Many new problems have cropped up and old ones have been allowed to fester. The federal tax code — recognized as a drag on the economy in the Reagan years — has continued to grow in size and complexity. It’s nearly twice as many pages today as it was at the twilight of the Cold War, and, to enforce the extra rules, the IRS’s budget has ballooned by 30 percent. The federal government’s budget has also swollen, increasing by 50 percent in real terms since 1987.
These problems won’t go away without positive action from policymakers. To set priorities, we need to ask ourselves: What world do want to be living in when the hum of cicadas fills the trees in 2021?
Life will change in countless unpredictable ways during the next 17 years. A new energy source will likely be mastered, making our current fixation on gasoline prices seem as antiquated as a market for whale-oil. An AIDS vaccine may transform the world’s healthcare system, relegating that hideous disease to the long-list of others already conquered by the boundless ingenuity of man.
Certainly it will be the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector that will churn out most of the world’s technological miracles. But policymakers have an important role to play, too. They need to craft an agenda that creates the optimal environment in which individual innovation and creativity can thrive to meet unknowable future challenges. Unlike the predictable cicada, we must be flexible.
By 2021, America needs a simple tax code that encourages work, rewards savings, and minimizes red tape and administrative burden. Our legal system should be rededicated to administering justice rather than spinning out lottery-sized payouts to lawyers who use the judiciary to exhort rather than protect. Social Security should change to a system that allows young workers to save and invest in their own retirement accounts. Policymakers have the chance to not only act responsibly to address a looming crisis, but to create a better system that gives all Americans an ownership stake in our economy.
Some problems policymakers will never be able to solve. The potential for a terrorist attack on American soil was not fully understood until 2001. Preventing another such incident involves vigilance and a continued investment in our intelligence and defense capabilities. Security and defense must again become the federal government’s core responsibilities, and the federal budget should honor those priorities over pork and unnecessary programs. Power over other areas of life should be restored to the people and localities, as the U.S. Constitution originally prescribed.
The cicadas engulfing Washington will soon disappear. The business of Washington, however, will continue. Their presence should encourage policymakers to forgo temporary political victories and focus on a long-term agenda that will create a better America by the next time the cicadas emerge.