The season has come around again. Presidential candidates are barking
insults at each other, and there’s a shadow of a hope for drawing some
attention to issues of true importance.
In the spirit of stirring up debate around what really matters for our
future, therefore, I am modestly offering a few of my own creative
solutions to the problems that the national campaigns should be
The energy crisis
There are so many simple ways people could cut down on the appalling
waste of energy in this country that it’s hardly fun to propose
anything new. But I have an initiative to offer, centered on the
crucial task of making public transportation appealing to Americans.
The terms “public transportation” and “appealing” sound so absurd
together as to be almost an oxymoron, in a culture like the United
States that handles public transportation as just another of the many
ways to punish poor people for being poor. The idea that public
transportation could be appealing didn’t come to me until I saw it in
action in other countries. And what I want to see in the United States
is even grander than what I’ve seen in Berlin, Rouen, and
Tokyo–something befitting an immensely rich and self-pampering
Why not present public transportation as an indulgence? Backed up with
the right resources, such a campaign might succeed. Who would want to
spend an hour driving himself to the office when he could sit in
luxury while someone else does the work?
This means buses (because stringing track is an expensive investment
that doesn’t pay off in the short term) that have comfortable seats
facing individualized media centers that offer news and educational
videos. Shuttles would run short routes on a frequent basis, and
customers would get to know their drivers. Comfortable waiting
stations would contain electronic maps showing the best way to get to
any local destination, and would show the exact location of each
vehicle as it makes its way through town–because people taking public
transportation like to have information in return for what they feel
is a loss of control.
Ultimately, of course, one can eliminate terror only by offering, to
the wide strata of poor and angry people whose environments give rise
to terrorists, a life better than that offered by the terrorists
themselves. Since the terrorists offer nothing but violence,
destitution, and grinding oppression, I can’t quite see why the rulers
of this world find it so hard to come up with a competing proposal.
But in the mean time we need to do something to improve our vigilance.
This past September, student Nathaniel Heatwole planted several
dangerous objects on commercial airplanes and notified the proper
authorities. They reacted with alacrity by fixing the problem a month
later, then arresting Heatwole for lack of better ideas of what to
do. And in Britain, Ryan Parry of the tabloid Daily Mirror obtained
easy access to Buckingham Palace, including the room where George
W. Bush is staying.
I can accept the argument that what these people did was both
dangerous and unnecessary, but we should examine the incidents for
possible merits. After all, we’re a competitive society with the
fervent belief that competition–along with accountability–brings out
the best in people and institutions. So let’s institutionalize
breaches of security, and accountability for them.
I wouldn’t reward someone for bringing actual weapons into airplanes,
nuclear facilities, state capital buildings, etc. But we could
encourage proxy violations, such as smuggling in inert metal rods
without being detected. Special, harmless, substances with certain
resemblances to weapons could be sold to people who want to try their
hand at the big sweepstakes. And institutions could be required by law
to set aside part of their budgets to actually pay bonuses when people
succeed in getting these materials past security.
It’s hard to say what institutions should join the initiative, because
you often don’t know you’re a soft target until you become one. But
every institution that was required to pay someone when its security
was breached would sure as hell spend money to improve security. This
initiative in fact would leverage the risk-based security philosophy
recently espoused by security expert
Turn over the country’s health care system to Fidel Castro, who has
presided for forty years over one of the world’s best health care
systems, one that recently
an important new vaccine for meningitis and pneumonia. Castro, could
perhaps be induced to make a swap and give up being dictator of one
country in order to become health care tsar of another, much larger
The digital divide
Access to online information is increasingly determining one’s ability
to understand the world politically, gain access to educational
materials, get a job, and even keep in touch with far-flung relatives
in societies where people are increasingly separated by thousands of
As with the other issues in this article, much ink and screen space
has been spent on debates over how much help the public needs and how
much the government should do. I will suggest one modest initiative
here that I think all could agree on.
Remember bookmobiles, those libraries on wheels that (even today, in
some places) bring reading materials to neighborhoods where people
don’t have the time or transportation facilities to reach traditional
libraries? We should do the same with Internet access.
Every day, at a predictable time, a datamobile would show up in a
neighborhood. Sporting a satellite dish on the roof, it would offer
high-speed Internet access to terminals inside the datamobile as well
as a wireless LAN hub that would make such access available to people
in surrounding homes.
In the short term, the datamobiles would help people get the
information they need for one day–perhaps throwing in a VoIP phone
call or two–and make them comfortable using the Internet. But the
initiative would be good for the long term too. It would create demand
for more permanent and available solutions. Perhaps neighborhoods
would band together to string wire, and people who thought they
couldn’t afford computers would scrape together the means to buy them.
Well, that’s it for my proposed campaign planks this year. Admittedly,
some presidential candidates may offer a platform that is easier to
implement, but I don’t think they’ll offer one that does more for
us. Anyway, I have to hold out the hope for a 2004 campaign that
consists of more than sound bites about gay marriage.
What solutions haven’t been thought of before?