Local column: Investment in the public is patriotic

To counter selfish self-serving propaganda against investing in schools, infrastructure and individual Americans, public works crusades should appeal to our patriotic nature., writes James Patten.

“The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of this shift, public assets have become public burdens. These personae, Citizen and Taxpayer, are both creations of political rhetoric. … While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion – failing infrastructure, for example – are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary fiefdom, however large or small.” (From “Save our public universities,” by Marilynne Robinson in “Harper’s” Magazine, March 2016.)

Patriotism entails more than flag salutes and self-aggrandizing firework displays. Vigorous support of one’s country is not limited to a willingness to don a uniform, though such sacrifice is commendable. Engaged, aspirational for both self and society, conquering of doubt and burden, exuding humility and grace in service, acquiescing on ideas but never ideals, these are traits attributed to the patriot of American mythology.

Americans revere their heroes. We exult in our patriotic holidays, of which the list is long: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

We, often insufferably, tout our liberty, system of government, and achievements as first and finest. Authors from the colonial to current – Crevecoeur, Tocqueville, Emerson, Twain, Thurber, Royko, McCullough, etc. – have examined, sometimes lampooning, the character of American civic life. Moreover, since our arrival upon this continent, many — from politicians to preachers, advocates to ad-men — have conflated their cause with the American patriotic identity.

We have been given by others who came before us majestic accomplishments. Our great public universities, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Bonneville Power Administration, Interstate Highway System, Americans walking upon the moon, all came through appeal to what Tocqueville labeled, “the natural grandeur of man.” We build public parks, public concert halls, public libraries and public schools as a means of celebrating the American ideal.

For some time now, the funding of societal needs – rebuilding of schools and infrastructure, expansion of Medicaid, etc. – has been presented to voters in a utilitarian manner. While explaining the benefits of tax-funded expenditures is an important first step in the process, basing an entire campaign on cost-benefit analysis inevitably leads to arguing point-by-point justification of minutia.

Troglodytes will fight any tax increase, real or perceived, essential or piddling, often using arguments meant to trivialize the necessity of the expenditure, for example: the working poor should get better jobs that offer health insurance, or acquire temporary structures to alleviate overcrowding rather than build “fancy” new schools. (I have attended school in temporary modular classrooms. They are cramped, cold and not conducive to learning.)

To counter such selfish self-serving propaganda, public works crusades should appeal to our patriotic nature. America, Americans, Idahoans are great. We do not need to be made “great again,” we must become greater still.

A major social disruption is coming. Within the next couple of decades Artificial Intelligence, automation and machine learning will affect the world’s economy in exciting, yet frightening ways. An adaptive, highly skilled, educated workforce will be essential to navigate the upcoming currents of change. If acquiring the necessary funding to guarantee Idaho provides that workforce means wrapping public funding campaigns in the “red, white, and blue,” so be it.

After all, if it is good enough for holiday sales, it is good enough to assure the future of our progeny.

This is part four of a series by James Patten on the threat of Artificial Intelligence and automation to our state’s future. Patten, a lifelong learner holds multiple degrees and is a member of the Eastern Idaho Jazz Society, the City Club of Idaho Falls, AARP and the ACLU of Idaho.