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  • Last modified 36 days ago (Aug. 16, 2018)

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Some old-fashioned new ideas

We’ve all heard how NASA spent millions developing a ballpoint pen to write in space while Russians used a pencil instead.

The irony, of course, is that Americans — particularly middle class, middle Americans like us — long have been renown for our MacGyver-like spirit of making do with whatever happens to be at hand.

We’re bred of pioneer stock. It’s in our DNA to patch and repair, to repurpose and improvise, to work hard and only rarely to relax and taste the fruits of our labor.

We root for the underdog. We applaud louder for the neighbor who figures out how to make a widget do what a gizmo does than we do for the affluent neighbor who simply buys a shiny new gizmo.

Part of the joy of being a farmer or a small business owner is the same as what John Kennedy alluded to when he challenged the nation to land on the moon: “We chose to go to the moon and do the other things not because it is easy but because it is hard.”

Somehow, that spirit seems to be dying. Mega-businesses have become leeches, profiting off the labor of others while contributing little of their own. Facebook, Google, WalMart, and others demean the American spirit in insidious ways, transforming us from pioneer herders into animals being herded toward slaughter.

Our privacy is invaded by social media that secretly harvest our data and fill our phone lines and mailboxes, both electronic and traditional, with unwanted, uncaring pitches shot from computerized blunderbusses.

We’ve become a nation of victims, asking not what we can do for our country but what our country can do for us. We’ve made charity antiseptic, donating to institutions that give things away rather than giving of ourselves to physically help others. That’s what we expect government to do in our stead.

This refrain is nothing new, of course. It’s been the mantra of a generation of curmudgeonly conservatives, harkening to a bygone era. Hang around 20-somethings as I have for more than two decades and your credentials as an old fogie become carved in stone.

The question is, what do we do about it? Instead of goose-stepping to a cadence that seeks, without ideas, to make America great again, how do we actually achieve that objective rather than merely stand in formation while pseudo-leaders bask in our support?

It’s time for old-fashioned to become new-fashioned, to start thinking about whether our institutions, which in many regards have led us to where we are, need to change.

And that starts with asking fundamental questions — like why do we spend so much time and money electing officials to jobs that are purely administrative, with no real policy implications?

Instead of electing a county clerk, a county treasurer, a register of deeds, and county commissioners who represent interests of geographic areas, what would happen if we instead elected a road and bridge commissioner, an emergency medical services commissioner, an administrative operations commissioner, and maybe even an economic development commissioner, each of whom would be answerable to voters about those vital areas of county government?

Times change. Years ago, we elected a state printer each year. We still elect a secretary of state, a state treasurer, and an insurance commissioner, so there’s work to do there. But remember that cities used to have commissioners who were responsible for various phases of city government.

Why we “modernized” to get rid of that system is a fact lost in history. The question to ask yourself is this: Were we better off with that kind of system than with the one we have today? Were our schools more responsive when school board members, not administrators, were the ones interviewing teacher applicants?

We’ve spent much of this summer bemoaning lack of leadership. One of the first steps in creating leadership is giving potential leaders a chance to lead rather than to become little more than occasionally disruptive cogs in administrative bureaucracy.

Rather than devoting so much energy and money to such things as economic development corporations that seemed doomed from the start, perhaps it’s time to rekindle the progressive nature of our conservative pioneer spirit and start transforming politics into something that serves the public instead of the politicians.

It starts with bold ideas. Some may be less chicken salad and more chicken you-know-what. But we have to bring them out, examine them, and not just wait for someone else to lead.

To each of us in Marion County: It’s our turn to lead. Where should we go?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Aug. 16, 2018

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