Charlie Harper: Happy birthday … to us

June 30, 2014 

I had a birthday last week. Now at the age of 45, I can no longer claim I'm in my early forties, nor deny that I am middle aged. Frankly, by many standards, I'm already old. My knees remind me of this by making an audible reminder whenever I stand up.

There's something about knowing that you've lived at least half your life. It's kind of like trying to decide if the glass is half empty or half full. There's still significant time left, God willing, to tackle new obstacles and accomplish new goals. There have also been plenty of happenings to look back upon, some with favor while others are clearly mistakes and lost opportunities.

Then, of course, there are deepening relationships that tend to occur during this period of life - The ones with your doctors. It seems there is a course in med school that teaches them to start yelling at people as we approach the mid-forties with admonishments about diet and exercise. Then, of course, they offer Lipitor or Crestor as a quick fix for those who won't listen.

I've rejected my doctor's suggestion of cholesterol medication and instead decided to do something, for once, the hard way. Forty-five-year-old me now weighs the same as college me once did. And, as such, my doctor has become an amazingly pleasant person again despite my rejection of his prescriptions. Knowing what needed to be done wasn't the hard part. Committing to what is difficult in the face of much easier options that masked the real problem is the hardest part.

America is having its birthday this week. It has almost another 200 years on me, but hard to say whether the U.S. is at middle age. Countries don't have the burden of trying to outlive the best guesses of actuaries. They continue in perpetuity so long as the people who have agreed to organize into self-governance continue to be willing to do so, and so long as they are able to repel outside forces that would choose to conquer them.

We have perhaps the best story of a nation determined to govern ourselves. We didn't get it all right the first time. We have 3/5ths people, women's inability to vote, and the Trail of Tears on our permanent record. Nor do we have it all right now, at this point in time. What we have, however, has usually been superior to what the other countries of the world have to offer their people.

There are current challenges. We borrow much of what we spend on ourselves, while constantly rolling over the debt we previously borrowed. We have soldiers deployed in combat without a clear definition or even plan for victory. We rely on China to supply us with cheap manufactured goods and an as yet unlimited line of credit. We rely on a federal government to be the first line of defense for charitable assistance, as most of us are too busy to reach out personally to those in our communities who are in need.

Yet instead of engaging on these problems, our politics is in gridlock. Some claim we are as divided politically as a people as we have been in a century or more. Perhaps we are, or perhaps the problem is even bigger than that. It may be that we're not divided, but the people who are politically active have gravitated to the far extremes while a larger number of those who represent the middle have withdrawn from the process, no longer seeing the value of political engagement. Too many no longer see value in participating in our experiment of democracy.

In short, we're borrowing money that we're not earning. We have too many people not engaged in basic functions of self-governance. We've outsourced self-governing to the political class, who are too busy fighting among themselves to solve real problems.

The budget needs to be put on a diet. More people need to exercise their civic responsibilities. It's not the easy choice, but it's what is needed for long term health of the country.

We've got a couple hundred years on our odometer, and there are signs of aging well past the government our founding fathers envisioned. Still, it is up to us to decide if our country's glass is half empty or half full. Whether or not we're a "young" country or near the end depends on our willingness to work through our differences and reject superficial solutions. It's time we commit to what will be hard, but must be done.

It is only our personal time that is required to be limited. If we use our time well, the country's doesn't have to be.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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