Let’s get the criticism out of the way first. Column writing is about as theoretical as it gets in politics, perhaps more theoretical even than writing white papers at a think tank. As Theodore Roosevelt once put it, “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” True. One advantage a columnist has over a think tank paper pusher, though, is that he can make a policy proposal without having to pretend to be a professional (read: academic prose and consultantese) or preemptively bury the idea beneath layers of bureaucracy.
The columnist can simply suggest that some things may be worth considering, that certain goals might circumvent the normal way of thinking about public things and be, with bipartisan appeal, low-hanging fruit. This is, admittedly, policy in the sense of cause and objects, theoretical. For the details of putting theory into practice and doing the deeds, we may be forced to wait for some Henry V, who, in the words of Shakespeare’s Canterbury, if you, “Turn him to any cause of policy, The Gordian knot of it he will unloose, Familiar as his garter.” But, in the meantime, here are a few ideas.
Let’s invest in semiconductors here at home. The professional political class of both parties is divided over what to do about China, and even where there is agreement it is of mixed minds. These disagreements cut across team lines that many have grown accustomed to, so there is a striking inactivity for all the talk dedicated to the question. The most pressing issue appears to most to be Taiwan, and whether to guarantee the island’s independence from the mainland, but that problem too has put sometime allies at odds and not yet formed new coalitions capable of moving the proverbial policy football in any direction. One thing agreed upon by all, however, is that semiconductors are important, and that part of the reason Taiwan is a complex issue is that it produces so much of the world’s supply. Investing in semiconductor manufacture here in the United States, which we have done before, is clearly beneficial without any regard to what happens to Taiwan—an act of high-tech reindustrialization as well as mitigation against any possible politics-produced supply disruption.
Related, insofar as it also seeks to sidestep a final decision about the U.S. response to China’s rise or a multipolar world, the United States should seek to be the largest trading partner of both Brazil and Argentina. Prior to answering questions about our own decoupling with China, we should be able to agree that it would be better for us if the major countries of South America traded with our businesses more than with China’s. It is a global world, but the Western Hemisphere is our backyard; there is even a whole Monroe Doctrine about that. Historically the doctrine was a negative policy of keeping foreign colonial powers out, and the corollary to that here is pretty obvious, but this initiative need not be about what we are against, but rather what we are for: improved relationships with Latin American nations and an economically stable and integrated near abroad.
Finally the fun one. There should be more bison, a lot more. We’ve been a frontier country from before our official beginning and we still feel the frontier’s closure sharply. From Little House on the Prairie to A Prairie Home Companion to Oregon Trail, cultural memories of the open plains and wilderness still shape the national psyche. And no wonder, for we are a continent-spanning country, containing nearly every topography and ecological system yet discovered. No amount of urbanization and highway systems can totally hide the sheer scale of the United States. So consider the anthem of America’s (I was careful in the prior paragraph about the U.S., in sensitivity to our southern neighbors, but no longer) westward expansion: Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam. Bison aren’t just cool—living American megafauna. The return of the great herds and enough open prairie grass to sustain them could act as a carbon sink, and such rewilding would necessarily entail a host of other responsible choices about land use and resources, including requiring better cooperation with and support of native tribes and sovereign nations. Add in forest management to make sure the deer and the antelope have somewhere to play. Imagine, bison cowboy as a new normal American summer job.
Likely because we are all still coming to grips with human life in the digital age, it seems harder and harder in our public discourse for people in positions of responsibility to discuss what concrete policy objectives they might in fact share with peers who have totally opposed priorities. We see the teams represented and not the particular actions they may take. But there really are big ideas that can be approached from different directions, especially when they deal with material realities, low-hanging fruit such as microchips and trade balances and big beasts in your back yard.