How the Center fortifies a long-term defense against the winds of silliness.

When people ask why some of us volunteer so much time and treasure to support Center of the American Experiment, I’m reminded of the day my father recruited me to help plant a row of oak saplings to fortify the windbreak alongside our farmhouse in Elrosa, Minnesota. (You haven’t heard of it, I know. It is a town of 211 people in Stearns County.)

Dubious that this was a worthwhile way to spend a sunny afternoon, I questioned how 40 two-foot trees would in any way help protect our house from prairie winds.

“Maybe not today,” he said. “But wait 25 years.”

Incredulous, I asked, “What do you care about 25 years? Won’t you be dead by then?” (A 12-year-old’s candor sometimes deserves a smack, now that I reflect back.)

“Maybe,” he answered. “But it’s not for me that we’re planting these trees.”

“Then who?”

“I’m planting them for you.”

Like most dads in rural Stearns County back in the mid-‘60s, my dad was likely responding to a practical question with a practical answer, not intentionally sowing a life lesson. But sow, he did, and I frequently think back on that exchange when I consider how our compelling need for instant gratification impedes our personal lives and our public policies.

And, to me, American Experiment combats the effects of instant gratification public policies with our commitment to reminding politicos that their foremost responsibility is to contribute to the long-term viability of our state.

We plant intellectual and philosophical saplings every day, rooted in our belief in long-term policies that create economic opportunity, encourage personal responsibility, and emphasize limited government and free enterprise. We ask hard questions. We challenge “popular” conventional wisdom. And we’re unafraid of (increasing) attacks from the left.

It isn’t easy. The once genial atmosphere for public discourse has taken an ugly turn in the quarter century since Mitch Pearlstein founded American Experiment, especially in the last five years or so. A regional policy center might once have been satisfied that it could stimulate public debate by preparing policy papers, attract some media attention, and eventually find its ideas take hold in the legislative process. Today, reporters are more opinionated, less interested in reporting on issues, and more prone to infuse their reports with the racehorse elements of politics. For their part, many academic types no longer even attempt to mask their naked disdain for our kind of small government, free-market and family-centered policies.

It’s forced the Center to capture the spotlight of policy debates by ramping up our public outreach activities. Our staff members fill our website every day with interesting (and highly readable) analysis and insights. They also contribute an impressive number of op-eds to newspapers across the state. To this, we’ve added policy-oriented radio advertising across Minnesota, and our billboard campaigns have made a significant impact, as well. And this month, with our “Mining Prosperity” campaign, we’ve even added television advertising to our quiver of tactical weapons. (See more detail in “Mining an Opportunity,” on page 11 of this magazine.)

We’re planting saplings that will last generations, but we’re using sophisticated modern communications techniques to make sure they grow.

* * *

Another aspect of my dad’s “sapling” lesson is darker, more insidious and will leave dangerous consequences.

I thought of it when I read that a recent Gallup poll discovered fewer than half (45 percent) of young Americans (age 18-29) have a favorable view of capitalism, while a majority (51 percent) have a favorable opinion of socialism.

There is no doubt in my mind that these attitudes evolve from having been regularly implanted in young, impressionable minds by the increasingly liberal/radical attitudes of many teachers who use their classrooms for political indoctrination rather than teach students the wisdom of independent thinking and rational discernment.

For my money, what is passing for socialism is the politics of the free lunch. These students (and their teachers and their far-left politicians) must marvel at how easy it is to solve every modern policy challenge through government intervention, without any sense of the costs or the long-term consequences.

Healthcare too expensive? Medicare for all!

Skyrocketing college tuition? Eliminate it! Make it free!

The burden of college debt? Forgive it!

How to pay for it? Soak the rich!

Writer H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

I would love to know how these teachers, young people and other “socialists” respond to how the politically-popular seedlings of socialism planted by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in the 1990s devastated the economy and culture of his country. He used profits from Venezuela’s massive oil industry to fund a far-reaching “free lunch” economy. In less than 15 years his country, still sitting atop the world’s richest oil reserves, is in economic ruins. A drop in oil prices pulled the plug on the country’s “government-funded” lifestyle. People are desperate to leave, crime is rampant, and one economist estimates that Venezuela’s hyper-inflation may reach 65,000 percent this year. The Wall Street Journal reported that resulting food shortages meant the average Venezuelan lost 18 pounds in 2016 and 24 pounds in 2017. How does that reconcile with the easy answers of political happy talk in the classroom and on the hustings?

We should all be reminded, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” I fear that kind of lesson can be learned only through harsh experience. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that wiser, long-term “saplings” take root and bring students back to the miracle of how American democracy and American capitalism have teamed to create the greatest nation on earth.