So here I am, sitting on the porch at camp, looking through the leaves at the Great Sacandaga Lake, nestled on the southeast fringe of New York's Adirondack State Park.
And wondering how we went so wrong.
The Great Sacandaga Lake is a monument to big government. So is the Adirondack State Park. The Lake -- which is actually a man-made reservoir -- was built through the '20s by a New York state-sponsored public benefit corporation and completed in 1930. It was part of a flood control project that damned the Sacandaga River -- creating the reservoir -- in order to control the flow of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers and dry out downstate communities that had hitherto been prone to flooding. It cost $12 million, or anywhere from $149 million to $162 million in today's dollars.
For its part, the Park was entirely a product of governmental fiat. In 1894, New York's state Constitution mandated that public lands "be forever kept as wild forest lands" and forbid those lands from being "leased, sold or exchanged" or "taken by any corporation, public or private." Because large swaths of the state had been de-forested throughout the 19th century, creating risks to water supplies and even imperiling the viability of one of the state's main economic engines, the Erie Canal, the Constitution for good measure also prevented the sale, removal or destruction of any timber on public lands. The result is that parts of the Adirondack still have old growth forests, some of the few remaining in the United States.
In 1902, the Legislature defined the Park's boundaries. In 1912, it stipulated that the Park included privately held land within it. From 1900 to 2000, the area of the Park more than doubled in size, and throughout that period, the state government heavily regulated development, private land use (50% of the park is privately owned), and density, and otherwise preserved the remaining wilderness area. These founding constitutional and legislative acts, along with a century of legal protection developed by New York's courts, then provided a model for the federal government's National Wilderness Act of 1964.
Too bad we couldn't duplicate the feat today.
As any reader of these essays knows, I am a fan of the past, especially of the progress of the past. I look back at the 1960s and see the progress made on civil rights, at the '50s and the interstate highway system, at the '30s and the New Deal. When I ran for Congress in 1992 and was campaigning on a commuter train running through my district just north of New York City, an inquiring and very skeptical voter asked me what good government had in fact done in this country. I asked him where he wanted me to start -- with the Louisiana Purchase (which almost doubled the size of the country in 1803), the Morrill Act (which created land grant colleges in 1862), the Interstate Commerce Act (which began the process of regulating the railroads in 1887), the Federal Reserve Act (which created the central banking system in 1913, and allowed for the creation of the modern dollar and the federal money supply), the New Deal (which created social security to end poverty among the aged, the National Labor Rights Act, to unionize and generate some economic equality, and the GI Bill, to educate and thus create enormous bursts in productivity)?
Often when I recite this litany of government created progress, I am met with a "that was then, this is now" rejoinder. One right winger literally tried to refute my argument by claiming the evidence was too old to matter. "How come," he said, " you always have to go back to the '30s or '60s to find anything good?"
Uh . . .
Maybe because you guys have been either running the show or doing your best to stop my side from adding to the country's litany of progress since then.
Years ago, I wrote to E.J. Dionne, Jr. of the Washington Post after reading one of his columns. I told him that, in my view, conservative Republicans run for election on the platform that government can do no good and then, once elected, try to prove it. (Dionne later referenced the remark in a column, attributing it to "a reader.") The result is that whole swaths of the contemporary American citizenry now think government is nothing but a waste of time and money, or -- in the words of the current GOP presidential front runner -- "totally clueless." Meanwhile . . .
Our roads are a mess . . .
Our bridges are falling down . . .
Our globe is over-heating . . .
And the middle class is shrinking.
But no one on their side of the aisle wants to do anything to tackle these problems. They won't pass the bill to fund the highway trust fund to fix the roads, raise the gasoline tax (when gas prices are lower than they have been in years) to re-build the bridges, pass cap and trade (a brainchild of their own designed as a market based alternative to command-based regulations) to combat global warming, or stop voting to repeal Obamacare (whose individual mandate was another one of their ideas they are now against).
The GOP is no longer a party in search of itself. It's a party in search of some sort of affirmative mission. It's not even the party of "No" anymore. Instead, it's the party of "Who cares?"
Take a look at the current front runners in their sardine can of a Presidential field. The three top candidates, who collectively are getting more than 50% in all the polls, are Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. None of them has ever held a single elective office, and within the group, only one of them has ever run for something (Fiorina, who ran for the US Senate from California in 2010 and lost by ten points). They are polling well among self-identified conservative and Republicans because they are anti-politicians, two business people (Trump and Fiorina) and a surgeon (Carson) who can ostensibly run the country when they haven't so much as run a county.
The rejoinder from conservatives is that businessmen (or women) make better officials and that the good Doctor is smart enough to figure it out once he gets there. This, however, is a claim long on rhetoric and short on proof. The only businessman sans elective office who ever was President was Herbert Hoover and he led us through the Depression in 1929 - 1932 as a hard money Mellonite, which was exactly the wrong medicine for that catastrophe but exactly what all his businessmen friends were telling him would work. Even those businessmen Presidents with elective office backgrounds -- Carter and George W. Bush -- are not viewed as great success stories. The former seemed a good natured scold much of his time in office, and the latter became a vehicle through which right wing ideology brought us economic collapse and international folly.
The problem with business folks in politics is that they are moving from an arena where people can be fired and the measures of progress (profit and loss) are indisputably clear to one where others (i.e., voters) call the shots on tenure and the measures of success are often qualitative (as in, for example, what policy leads to more fairness or justice or happiness) . Business is about managing to an unambiguous bottom line. Politics is about negotiating in the ambiguous environment of competing values. (And though Doctor Carson, of course, cannot be subject to this critique, it does seem a bit off to assume that the Presidency's learning curve is easily climbed merely as a matter of surgical brilliance. Put differently, I am happy to have Dr. Carson operate on me, but until I see more of what else he can do, I don't want him operating on the country.)
In truth, none of these three could warrant so much as a nod were it not for the swelling crescendo of anti-government hatred that has coursed through America's arteries for the last thirty years. It is that hatred which is saving Trump from the consequences of his ego maniacal (and, frankly, adolescent) bullying, Fiorina from the incompetence of her tenure at Hewlett-Packard, and Carson from the fact that the Presidency is not a job that comes with training wheels. If they win, however, the party of "Who cares" -- with no new ideas, a host of old ones that have failed, and leading men (and one women) wholly unsuited for the high office they seek -- may well implode.
Because, here on the Great Lake Sacandaga,there is evidence that we once all cared. . .
And used government to channel public energy in the service of those cares . . .
And, in so doing, saved our wilderness, and our world, and our future . . .
And can do it again.