As a resident of Washington, D.C., for almost 40 years, I am often asked by friends in other places what it’s like here, now that Donald Trump lives on Pennsylvania Avenue. The short answer is that I find myself swinging between despair and hope: I cannot remember a time when the quality and integrity of public discourse and politics sank to the sewer depths in which we now find ourselves, but I am also awestruck by so many Americans whose passion for what our country stands for propels them in response, resistance, and renewal.
I got my most recent injection of optimism by reading the wise words of your governor in our local paper, the Washington Post. In gratitude, I offer these reflections in exchange.
During my first visit to your great state, last summer (yes, it took me that long to get there -- to my sadness and embarrassment), one of the highlights was a boat tour through the Gates of the Mountains. There were easily 100 people on board, mostly families with kids and grandkids enjoying a few hours of their summer holiday, contemplating the magnificent Missouri River, learning from our guide how Lewis and Clark found their way there, marveling at the cliffs and birds and rocks, taking advantage of their great good fortune that these are, indeed, their lands. I wondered quietly if these Americans realized that their president would try to undo a century’s worth of enlightened public policy that protected these places -- and so many others -- and made it possible for all of us to see, feel, and experience their natural beauty.
Fast forward, and sure enough the president carried through on his threat. As reported in the New York Times, he “reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah … by some two million acres, the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history…” He hasn’t yet come after Gates of the Mountains, but he’s on his way. Which is why the response by Governor Bullock needs to be heard by everyone: “An attack on public lands anywhere is an attack on public lands everywhere, and it flies in the face of who we are as a nation. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from — Manhattan, Mont., Manhattan, N.Y., or Manhattan, Kan. — public lands belong to all of us…”
I’m not an environmental expert, by any means. I work in education, with training in economics and public policy. But the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante announcement relates to my world in subtle and significant ways. It is indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of, and a disdain for, the concept of “the public good,” the idea that without collective responsibility and yes, collective and even coercive control, the individual pursuit of self-interest can make us all worse off. Capitalism is great, to be sure, and has brought more good to more people in the world than any other system. But what makes capitalism succeed, ironically, is the imposition of rules to curb the instincts that would otherwise destroy the things we cherish most. If you’re not sure about the downside risks of unregulated competition, just ask friends who are still trying to recover from our most recent recession, what an astute commentator has called “the conflagration [that] would go on to blaze through more than 8 million jobs, trillions of dollars in wealth, millions of foreclosed homes and half the value of the stock market…” Even Adam Smith, famous for his metaphor of the “invisible hand,” understood what happens if private impulses are not checked by public values.
Governor Bullock understands too. It’s not surprising that his love of the land and his resistance to the undoing of government protection of sacred natural beauty extends to other arenas where the concept of the public good is so central. He has invested in programs for disadvantaged youth (his and first lady Lisa Bullock’s “breakfast after the bell” initiative is an enlightened approach to reducing childhood hunger); he has committed his administration to investments in early childhood education; he has managed a significant expansion in Medicaid; and he has launched innovative programs to recruit and train the best workforce possible.
These are just some examples of the governor’s passion for using the power and purse of government to advance the interests of all his constituents. Notably, and perhaps not surprisingly, he has worked “across the aisle” and convinced even some hard-core believers in private markets that we are all better off if fewer kids go hungry, if more kids get a good education, if more citizens have health insurance, and if more workers develop skills to succeed in our changing economy. To paraphrase from his op-ed, “It doesn’t matter where we live, what we do for a living or whom we vote for … what matters is [that] we [stand] together, united by our shared values and love of our lands, rivers, streams and, most important, our way of life.”
Thank you, Governor Bullock, for your eloquent reminder of the potential we have to protect America’s true greatness. Hopefully, by the time I get back to Gates of the Mountains, that place and the rest of our physical, cultural, political, and moral heritage will still be protected.
Michael J. Feuer, Ph.D., is dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University, and immediate past president of the National Academy of Education. These are his views and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of GW or the National Academy.