When my class wrote their “class prophecy” upon graduation, they did not imagine me as a Professor of either Math or Economics. Rather, they predicted that, at our 15-year reunion, I would be a U. S. Senator. It did not seem to bother the authors of the prophecy that there are very few senators in their thirties. Never mind, I was heading off to Washington, D.C., so a career in government was surely in my future. I found myself thinking of this recently, as our country was faced with the shootings in a practice session for a baseball game on a field just outside the Capital.
Once, when there was some possibility that my daughter’s class would be taking a trip to Washington, D.C., I wanted to volunteer as a chaperone, an idea that my daughter quickly decided was not going to happen. I thought that I would have been an excellent choice, as I spent time at a summer job while in college serving as a kind of “urban camp counselor” who ran around D.C. with high school students visiting the city. We took them to congressional offices, the F.B.I., the White House, and even the Kennedy Center for a play. It was a great summer job, complete with housing, and I got to see more of that city than I ever had time to see during the school year, when I had my nose in books. One of my memories of that time was of a continuous background scene of baseball games, played in public areas downtown by people who worked for the government, often in the oppressive heat and humidity that is our nation’s capital in the summer. I doubt that any of those participants ever felt that their lives were in danger by anything more than “sweating to death.”
But, as we all learned recently, the freedom that we enjoy in this country brings with it a level of danger, as the interaction with the public, in public places, by those who hold government positions puts them in situations where their safety is not always guaranteed. It soon became clear that some of the motivation for the shootings was possibly political, with a shooter who disagreed with some members of our government on issues about which he felt strongly. Hearing his story, I realize that he would not have agreed with many of the ideas I took with me to Washington when I was a teenager. Would I have been in danger?
When I used to think of a future in government, I am afraid that I confused governing with studying public policy issues, and didn’t realize that what really interested me was the chance to be, as Hillary Clinton was often described, a “policy wonk.” The exchange of ideas about how to improve public policy was what first grabbed my attention, an interest that has followed me into my career as an economist.
This coming week, we celebrate the birthday of this country. As my family grills burgers and eats amazing Ohio sweet corn, I hope wall pause for a moment to be thankful that we live in a country where people can disagree about important issues. We are even more blessed because in this free country, that there are places where such disagreements can be brought to the table without having to resort to violence. Indeed, dare I suggest that this is exactly one of the important roles played by colleges and universities?