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IDEAS

Make government jobs cool again

Unfortunately, we’ve seen what happens when too many of America’s sharpest minds brush off the public sector.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969, back when the Apollo missions and other public endeavors appealed strongly to technologists.
Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969, back when the Apollo missions and other public endeavors appealed strongly to technologists.NEIL ARMSTRONG/AFP/Getty Images

How thrilling would the musical “Hamilton” be if the protagonist had decided that government and politics were lame and useless and that the ticket to changing the world was launching the 18th-century version of a high-tech startup? Would we be swooning to hip-hop anthems for a man who used his smarts and skills to get rich and to have fun inventing things — say, a slightly better steam engine or the flush toilet — rather than putting everything on the line to reshape society?

Today, as multiple crises ripple across our land and around the globe, it’s instructive to take a quick peek back at that earlier era, when some of the best and the brightest in America not only embraced government as a vehicle for correcting society’s wrongs but also were willing to fight for, argue over, and implement a new political system that set out to encourage the best in human nature and to keep in check our species’ less virtuous traits.

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What Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries achieved was deeply flawed. But it was unquestionably superior to the capricious chaos of that era’s kings, emperors, and princes. Sound familiar?

In 2020, we are again facing an onslaught of would-be tyrants and strongmen making an assault on democracy, and that is only one of the many jams we’re in while too many of today’s Hamiltons — let’s call them the A-Team — for years have largely shunned politics and government.

In this year from hell, we’ve seen what happens when too many critical collective functions, like having a coordinated national policy for combating COVID-19, is left to third-rate politicians and managers who not only lack imagination and competence but have declared war on expertise and science.

The problem existed well before the Trump administration. For at least a generation, many of America’s top minds have resisted, if not actively disdained, going into politics or government or working closely with government agencies. Mention the government to many innovators or creative thinkers — not just in technology but in academia, nonprofits, or business — and you get groans and eye rolls. Sometimes you get open hostility, including from the people whose preferred approach to changing the world is to invent, invest in, and launch new technologies — whether those are driverless cars, social media apps, coffee-delivery drones, or nanoprobes to repair damaged tissue in the brain.

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It’s not that leaders from tech and science have totally ignored public service. To name just a few examples, Megan Smith, the former vice president for business development at Google, and Todd Park, cofounder of Athenahealth, served as chief technology officers of the United States under President Obama. The widely respected physicist John Holdren was Obama’s chief scientific adviser, while Nobel laureate Steven Chu was secretary of energy. Organizations like Code for America, founded by tech leaders in Silicon Valley to help governments utilize tech more effectively, have likewise sprung up. So have savvy nonprofit groups dedicated to fighting social injustice, the excesses of social media, and other pressing issues.

For too long, though, the government has been dismissed as creaky and ineffective. “It’s just not a place where I spend a lot of time,” Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures and current founder of the Section 32 venture capital fund, told me in 2012. “Because I don’t feel like I can have a lot of impact there. There are people who spend their entire careers in government and policy, and it’s like, has the peanut been pushed one inch?”

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In 2016, a former CEO of one of the largest technology companies in the world told a private conference in Silicon Valley, according to someone I know who was there, that it didn’t much matter who was elected president that year, since governments were mostly all the same. What mattered, he said, was technology.

In the past four years, we’ve gotten a painful lesson in how important elections are, and why people who are passionate about transforming the world — and can imagine new approaches and run things — are needed in government.

Let’s say you want to fix our disastrously broken health care system or repair our dangerously teetering bridges, roads, and other basic infrastructure. Or you’d like to revive what was recently the finest public health operation in the world, reduce carbon in Earth’s atmosphere, and bring science back to the core of how we understand and solve problems. Sure, building a cool new app or inventing a breakthrough AI system might help. Yet any technology, as amazing and brilliant as it might be, is only as effective as the human-designed and human-managed systems that it operates within. Technologies require functioning political systems.

Take health care. The United States is a powerhouse of innovation around new technologies and breathtaking discoveries — like the CRISPR gene-editing tools that recently won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for its co-discoverers, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. But our country is hobbled when it comes to bringing new biomedical breakthroughs to the clinical delivery level, because the health care system is grossly inefficient and expensive. Until our government tackles a redesign of the underlying system, all the apps and breakthrough companies in the world won’t fundamentally change the yawning deficiencies in health care delivery in the United States.

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We need all hands on deck right now. More participation at all levels of government is critical as we humans face a hinge moment in history, where we could swing into a better future, or back into versions of darker, less optimal pasts.

We don’t have to look back to Hamilton’s time for a model. From World War II through the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, working for the government was actually exciting. Top engineers, scientists, physicians, economists, sociologists, and other researchers flocked to join agencies such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which were part of a reimagined government operating in the spirit of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

We can argue over how big or small government should be, and how heavy or light its hand should be — just as Hamilton (big government) and Jefferson (small government) did back in the day. But this shouldn’t stop effective leaders across the United States from diving in and following JFK’s advice. Working in Washington, D.C., or in your hometown’s city council might be less lucrative than chasing IPOs. But bringing more expertise into the government — and optimizing it for people rather than petty politics, power plays, and profits — is what’s needed to pave the way for powerful technologies and big ideas to actually be put to their best use.

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That’s a musical I’d like to imagine my descendants watching 250 years from now, perhaps beamed across neural links to colonies in distant solar systems: a “Hamilton” update that relates the struggles and ultimate success of an amazing group of people from our age who emerged out of the disasters of the early 21st century to collectively solve our biggest problems and to move far more than just a peanut.

David Ewing Duncan is a journalist who writes for Vanity Fair and Wired. His latest book is “Talking to Robots: Tales From Our Human-Robot Futures.”