Solutions from a Nobody Chapter One

Returning to Fundamentals

 

From the very beginning, what has made American fundamentally different from other nations is that our ideals, laws, and ways of life arise from the people — not a ruler, dictator, king, or aristocracy. When I think about this, I often use the metaphor of a team: every citizen is a teammate, each vital to the success of the team and each with the power to change our direction. We are, in a very real way, Team USA.

Being on a team requires participation, making your voice heard and being counted with your vote. Being on Team USA is a great honor and one that should encourage everyone to contribute, to help move this team to greatness.

We are all part of many teams, of course. Your first team is your family, the team that gives you your start in life. Your second team is your community: your neighbors, a place of worship, the local outreach center. There are other teams, too: an educational team while we’re in school, and a team at our job as we get older. As Americans we are all apart of Team USA.

Stronger families and communities make for a stronger American team, but not everyone has a good family team, and not everyone has a good educational experience. Some people’s education experience was drowned by an ever-pressing need to survive; their educational growth took a backseat to meeting basic needs. In many cases, the family team wasn’t stable or strong enough to support the educational empowerment process. Without carrying the sports idea too far, I think we can say that not everyone in America begins on the same starting line.

But we can improve our teammates’ experiences when Team USA comes together. We have the resources and abilities to make an investment in the lives of our citizens, ensuring strong teams in all areas of life — all while keeping our personal freedoms and responsibilities intact. We can do all of this by finding common ground, adhering to our founding principles, and encouraging participation from everyone on our team.

One aspect of the team metaphor that I love is how it recognizes our differences. Teams are not comprised of identical people; each is an individual, with different goals and different perspectives and different skills and different backgrounds. The team works best when each team member is valued for their individuality, when they individually are responsible for themselves, and when the team invests to make the individuals on their team stronger. 

What makes America so special is our ability to work together as a team while maintaining the individual responsibility of options and choices. We are a strong team not because we are guided by one man’s vision, one man’s search for power and money. We are strong because within each and every teammate is an individual voice, an individual power.

Throughout history, people from all over the world have wanted to be on Team USA. Some fled their original country because they didn’t have religious, political, or monetary freedoms. Their original countries might have had starvation, oppression, disease, terror, hate, control, dictatorship… maybe just an overall feeling that they were not in control of their own destiny. 

Whatever the reason, people all over the world have gone to great lengths to be on our team. We have always attracted the dreamers, the innovators, the visionaries, and the driven. We have attracted the people of the world who wanted better for themselves, who challenged everyday thinking, who dared to dream past their circumstances. And we have welcomed the people of the world who wanted to roll up their sleeves and build a better life for themselves.

We haven’t always done right by our team, of course. We have fought deadly wars with ourselves, we have enslaved and controlled some of our own teammates, we have taken away the land and livelihoods of nations. These are serious and dark struggles that we are still navigating today. But our team has the ability, strength, and internal compass to fight for justice, to overcome our faults and mistakes, to correct our course. We can become better than our past, we can learn from our mistakes, and we the people can change our future. That’s why I would never ever want to be on anyone else’s team. Not because we are innately better, but because we are free to change our path toward the good. Because we can change our path toward the good.

As we enter into this conversation about solutions for our country, I ask that you look at your neighbors and your countrymen as teammates. Look at the common belief that we Americans hold and value: freedom for the individual, freedom to choose their best life, freedom to fail, freedom to succeed, freedom to live. We are a team with the same values in freedom and that is the glue that will keep us together. I ask that you believe in the power that resides in you, the individual to bring forth the best that our team can be. We should not be held back by what we have not yet done. We are limitless in what our team can accomplish when we believe in ourselves and in each other.

 

Government of the People

It has been true since our founding the power resides in the people — that was the founders’ intention, to make sure that no single person, no branch of government, and no political party was more powerful than the people at large. Our government is unique and works so well because the power of our country is held within the American people.

Helping all of this is our system of checks and balances, which keeps the three branches of government in line. The executive branch (the President), the legislative branch (Congress), and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court) each have their own duties and responsibilities. The constitution structured them in such a way as to prevent any one branch from gaining too much power. Control of our government remains with the American people — not the politicians, not our judges, and not the church.

When our country was founded, it was revolutionary to think a government could be run by its own people; there was not a country at the time that had ever let their own people have control. Before America tried this, power and control was predominantly held by royalty, the throne being passed down from generation to generation. Aristocracies and churches held sway over many of these ruling families, manipulating things such that wealth and power were continually concentrated among the very few. Government was not intended for the people at large.

In fact, if you lived in this time, your life was generally not your own; it was your king’s or your church’s, and no amount of hard work, sacrifice, or dedication was ever going to elevate you above your role as a servant, metal worker, slave, or peasant. (Royalty, on the other hand, would always be royal, even if they were no good at it.) If you disagreed with the church, you’d be excommunicated and often sentenced to death. If you disagreed with the king, you’d be called a traitor and often sentenced to death. No juries, no trials, no innocence presumed. Even if you avoided such a fate, you weren’t allowed to explore your heart’s desires, your dreams, your will and purpose. None of that mattered. The individual didn’t matter.

Our founders rebelled against this. They wanted a better life for themselves, their children, and future generations — one in which the few could not have such control over the will and freedom of individual people. They wanted to be rid of generational rulers and powerful organizations like the church that held unbridled power. America’s founders wanted freedom for individuals to control their own education, their own purpose and dreams and careers. They wanted freedom for people to voice their opinions and to be critical of the government without fear of undue punishment. Freedom to be innocent until proven guilty, freedom to be represented in a trial and judged by peers. Freedom to own land and freedom to pass that land on. Freedom to build wealth. Freedom to vote.

As they designed a government to protect these freedoms and choices, the founders knew they had to establish a system in which no branch of government could pull power or control away from the hands of the American people. This is why we have three branches of our federal government, each checking the others’ power.

“All men having great power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree,” wrote James Madison, primary author of the Constitution and our fourth President. He knew what he was talking about: even in our own country, leaders have often tried to take power away from the American people. Their reasons seem legitimate sometimes, but no matter how tempting it might be — how many evils lurk in the world, how strongly our leaders say “this is the only way forward” — we must never limit the freedoms of the people. We must never stop holding our government accountable. Especially when we are wounded, especially when threats arise, we need to remain strong and committed to the principles that our founders knew were so vital to our long-term success. The power must reside in the people.

This means you and I, by the way. We have to hold our elected accountable, not just for their actions of their vote but by their adherence to our document of freedom, our constitution. So many people are elected by promises of protecting the American people by way of removing freedoms, options and choices away from the individual.  By capitalizing on fear, without realizing it, we are giving our freedom away, step by fearful step.

We must stop rewarding candidates for this rhetoric of fear, just as we must stop judging candidates by their wealth, their family, the scandals (or lack thereof), their church, their gender, or their party. Instead, we must elect those who have a real vision for our country, those who believe in the same principles as our founders who understand the importance of ensuring that our government is of the people, and by the people, and for the people.

We also have to protect all rights, even those we might not personally agree with. Our government and our country is rooted in a belief that we are due certain rights, most fundamentally the ability to choose our individual path in life. Each citizen should be the sole arbiter of what is best for himself so long as his actions do not infringe upon the liberty or property rights of others. The first ten amendments to our Constitution — the Bill of Rights — was written solely to protect this innate right to choose. The same principles should apply to all levels of government, local on up to federal. And yes, freedom to choose means sometimes we choose foolishly, sometimes we fail. That freedom, too, has to be protected from government intervention.

The freedoms of the American people are more important than anything our elected officials might peddle in an election. In fact, Abraham Lincoln — sixteenth President and the man who led us through one of our country’s darkest hours — wrote, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

I know we can go farther in self-governing than anyone has ever thought possible. But we can only do so if we know how we arrived here. We can only move forward if we know how valuable our freedoms are and what is at stake when they are challenged.

Most of us haven’t experienced life under kings, dynasties, and omnipresent churches. We have the great privilege of enjoying the life that has resulted from our founders’ intentions and the work of generations before us. Perhaps that means we can’t appreciate the necessity of individual freedoms as much as our founders did; perhaps we don’t understand the kind of oppression that propelled our founding fathers to take action the way they did.

But just because we may not have people called kings and queens, we have plenty of unchecked power: elected officials with little accountability, families whose wealth grants limitless influence, religious leaders more concerned with their primacy than true leadership, and corporations who are granted more rights than most citizens. Money and power may hold different titles than they did 200 years ago, but the danger is still there. It is as vital today as it ever has been for us to restore power to the American people.

America did not invent the idea that individuals are innately free, nor do we own the idea. However, we are responsible for writing one of the most beautiful declarations of these rights — our Constitution — and for developing this idea over hundreds of years. No nation before or since has placed the individual freedoms of its people at the center of its government, and it is up to us to restore those rights to their intended status. Whatever light we send into the world emanates solely from an American government of the people.

 

Accountability

We the people decide who will represent us in making laws and defending our freedoms and rights. We usually elect congressional leaders because they share our vision for this country, but once they’re in office, it’s hard for us to know if they are living up to their end of the deal. Accountability is the glue that holds our team together, it should be one of the highest standards for elected officials, yet it is practically nonexistent. Laws are too big and too complex for most of us to understand, and often the reality of getting bills to actually pass in Congress is completely hidden from citizens’ view. This lack of transparency is made worse by campaign finance pressures, which make those in Congress more accountable to massive corporations than to those who vote for them. And worst of all, those in power stay in office far too long, leaving them detached and bought from the reality of most Americans’ lives. How can they be held accountable to a population they increasingly don’t understand?

Let’s take each of these issues in turn.

 

The Complexity of Laws

Here is a selection of recent federal legislation, along with the approximate word count of each:

●       The Affordable Health Care for America Act (2009): 314,900 words

●       The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (2005): 314,900 words

●       The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010): 314,600 words

●       The Consolidated Appropriations Act (2005): 296,100 words

●       The No Child Left Behind Act (2001): 274,600 words

Just as a frame of reference, the book you’re currently reading is roughly 70,000 words; about one-fourth the length of just a single one of those bills. You would have to read four books this size to get through just one of these bills. The average number of bills passed by Congress each term is 758, but that’s only the laws that were passed; the 112th Congress — which, by the way, was deemed the least productive Congress on record — considered 6,845 bills (561 were passed). Obviously, not every bill that is introduced is as large as the acts listed above, but even if we assume that the average bill is only 50,000 words — one-sixth the size of the aforementioned bills — that’s more than 325 million words to read over the two-year span of a Representative’s term. Even with their staffs, that’s a lot of ground to cover.

The problem with these over-stuffed bills is not just that it’s difficult for representatives to agree on all the facets of the proposed law, but it makes accountability practically impossible. How are we supposed to track these bills when they cover so many subjects?

A 2014 spending bill, according to the Los Angeles Times, had “provisions that span the political spectrum, including easing rest rules for truck drivers, loosening financial derivatives regulations for Wall Street and meddling with aspects of a voter-approved marijuana initiative in the District of Columbia. There is also $5.4 billion to handle the Ebola crisis in Africa and $5 billion to fight Islamic State insurgents. But there are also new reductions in social welfare programs, including a $93-million cut from the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and $60 million trimmed from the Environmental Protections Agency. New funding is provided for emerging needs, including $7 million to launch anti-heroin police task forces; $50 million for drought relief in Western States; and $80 million to care for unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border... a pay freeze for the vice president and no federal money for presidential portraits. The legislation also would loosen some campaign finance restrictions.”

All these aspects come from one spending bill — just one bill! This is a disservice to the American people, so I propose a simple solution: pass bills on a single subject.

If Congress voted on single subjects, we Americans would actually know that $93 million was cut from the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, or that Wall Street had been deregulated even further. I’m not here to say whether these specific funding decisions are good or not; my point here is that aspects of these bills should be voted on by themselves. That would make the policies of our government clearer to us as citizens, but it would also enable us to hold our representatives accountable; we wouldn’t be stuck wondering “Was it the Vice President’s pay freeze that convinced you to vote for this massive bill, or the drought relief?”

Single-subject bills for every bill passed in Congress would provide transparency to our federal government; it’s just plain common sense to vote on one subject. And there is precedent: the Colorado State Legislature, for example, only votes on single-subject bills. These proposals are easier to read because of their size and their focus, and it’s easier for representatives to come to a direct decision on the given topic.

With this one change to how our laws are passed in this country, we can instill a more effective and efficient government of the people. It would give the American people a real scorecard for the people they voted for, and it would restore our ability to choose — no longer would we have to swallow one part of a bill just to secure something unrelated that we believe in. And with smaller and more streamlined bills, the chances would improve for each bill to actually protect Americans, improve our lives, and invest in our future. No longer would our representatives be able to hide outrageous expenditures or rules in massive bills and get away with it just because we can’t see them.

Another problem with these gigantic bills is you have no idea why your congressman voted for a bill. I went to my representative’s website to see exactly how he voted. I was really excited when I saw the button that said, “See how I voted.” I clicked on that, but the page it took me to had nothing but bill codes in one column and “Yay” or “Nay” in another. The majority of the population does not understands bill codes; to be transparent, representatives should use the bill name as well and a brief explanation of the bill itself.

Additionally, “Yay” or “Nay” is not an explanation of why they voted for or against a bill. Which part did they agree with or not agree with? They could have loved one aspect of the bill and completely hated another aspect of the bill, but all we common people see is a simple up-or-down vote. Americans deserve to know more about these bills and more about how our representatives are handling our interests as voters — so we can hire or fire them in the next election.

Think about it like a football game. Imagine we’re watching the Broncos and the Patriots, an all-American matchup, but every time the teams gather at the line of scrimmage, the screen goes blank for a minute. When it comes back on, the play has already been made and all we see is the aftermath. Everyone in the stadium, there in person, can see the plays and the full game — but most Americans, watching from a distance, only get to see bits and parts, never really understanding what’s going on. Who threw the touchdowns? What plays were made and why? How did the players react? Who was hurt? Who pulled through?  The final score is 50-10 for the Patriots, and America, you just have to live with it.

That’s a ridiculous scenario, and one that would cause any of us incredible amounts of frustration and disillusionment. Yet that’s exactly how most of our laws are passed. We have elected a team to play for us — for our lives, our homes, our protection; our careers, our savings, our children — yet with overstuffed laws, no transparency from our representatives on why they voted they way they did, and no ability to see all the back-room deals, we’re prevented from watching the game. We can’t judge the outcomes and we can’t trust the players — yet we have to live with the deep ramifications of “the score”.

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in A View of the Rights of British America, “When the representative body have lost the confidence of their constituents, when they have notoriously made sale of their most valuable rights, when they have assumed to themselves powers which the people never put into their hands, then indeed their continuing in office becomes dangerous to the state, and call for an exercise of the power of dissolution.”

Our founders knew the importance of accountability to the American people. When there is no transparency and no accountability, the entire state suffers.

 

Campaign Spending

From a recent interview on NPR between host Renee Montagne and Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski:

MONTAGNE: It's interesting that when you announced that you were retiring, that you announced it — probably because you'd rather, as you said, rather than raise money, you'd rather spend your time raising hell, which is a little different than some of your colleagues in the Senate who have announced retirement saying they were leaving because they couldn't get a lot done. You were alluding to this different obstacle, which is what it takes to raise the money to campaign and win an election.

MIKULSKI: Well, I've said, who was I going to campaign for? Was I going to campaign for me or for the people of Maryland, who I so love and so appreciate the trust that they've sent in me? And then, I want these next 20 months to just sizzle with advocacy for making sure that I'm worried about their future, their job, increasing their income. Now, let's talk about the money, though, because it's not only the money that we have to raise as candidates. But it's the outside groups, the outside influence, the tremendous amounts of money that are spent against candidates before they even have a primary opponent. It takes wiser heads than me, experts on the First Amendment, who really then take a look at how we can reform campaign finance so we continue to be the greatest institution, where we are un-bought and un-bossed.”

 

Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has served in the U.S. Congress for three decades and she knows exactly what Congress is up against. Senator Mikulski has 30 years of experience working in a congress that is bought and bossed by the outside groups, the lobbyists, and the huge corporations. It seems as though almost every elected leader currently has sold themselves out to money in one way or another; sadly, it is almost mandatory in getting elected in today’s day and age. With the costs of campaigns skyrocketing, and the reality that getting elected is tied to who has funding, it’s no wonder that our leaders are so focused on money — and so intent to listen to those who control the resources.

The candidates we end up with, as a result, aren’t necessarily the best people, they’re just those who can raise the most money. They’re salesmen, not statesmen. And in a system where money dictates electability, those with funds pick the leaders and control the direction of our team. The everyday American doesn’t stand a chance. (If our founders had seen this coming, they would not only have created a separation of church and state, they would have taken a stand for separation of company and state.)

Right now this means that some very scary, powerful, and manipulative companies are using our government, our laws, and our federal agencies to benefit themselves. No matter the promises a candidate makes to the American people, they will never fully come through because money talks — and the American people don’t have enough money to hold our representatives accountable. If Americans really want a government of the people, for the people, by the people, we have to curb the pull from money bosses and incentivize our leaders to work for us instead of monetary gain.

I believe the solution to all of this is relatively simple: a cap on campaign spending. Many other countries have had success with such laws: the United Kingdom, for example, has had campaign spending legislation since 1883. (It started with the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act of 1883; the most recent reform was encased in the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act of 2000.)

Campaign spending caps do not dictate how much money a candidate can raise, who can donate, nor who can run for office — but it does limit the money that can be spent in a single election. This would open the playing field to candidates who are made of character and not just money, who have a vision for this country and not just a talent for raising money.

This would allow representatives in office to focus less on fundraising and more on the lives of their constituents.

It might even lead to better money management. What American wouldn’t enjoy the candidates being wise and frugal with their money? It would be a great lesson in staying within a budget, a skill that many of our elected officials seem to lack. We might actually one day get out of debt as a country if the people we elected could stick to a budget.

Most important, though, is this: until there is a cap on campaign spending, the people on Team USA will have little say over policy that affects their lives. The American dream is the opportunity to build your own life, controlling your own actions and raising your own voice, but the longer we wait to put a cap on campaign spending, the further away we as a country will be from this dream. The longer we wait, the less our individual voices will be heard. The longer we stay silent, the louder those with money will become.

America, we have to take a stand while we still can and protect our people: the starting class, the middle class, and our most successful class. We have to protect our elections so that they are won and not bought.

 

Term Limits

When Representative John Dingell of Michigan retired in 2015, he had held his seat for 60 years. John Leahy has served as the Senator from Vermont for more than 40 years. As of October 31, 2015, there are 21 Representatives in the House who have served since the 1980s; more than 70 members of either house of Congress have served since the 1990s. As my friend Nancy asked me recently, “How in the world is someone who has been in Congress for more than 20 years going to know what it’s like to be us?”

Nancy and her husband own a small business, steel company in Colorado, and the bills that are being passed in Congress have a direct effect on their ability to keep their doors open. For example, recent healthcare laws demand that if they don’t have 75% of their workers on a company health insurance plan, they face a fine of $2,000 per employee per year. That’s $2,000 per employee that won’t go to their workers, or back into their business, or to our economy.

Nancy believed that the reason bills such as this were being passed was in part due to our elected officials living in the Washington bubble for twenty years. Nancy and more like her feel that when our representation in the political class for so long, you forget what it is like to be a citizen. If our representation had more connections to people living with the effects of such laws, you would have never voted for a policy that forces small businesses to have fewer options, choices, and capital. Career politicians by nature are miles away from the realities of being a normal citizen, the realities of own a small business, such as what it’s like to run payroll, manage benefits, pay taxes, support employees, and save for retirement. (And, as noted earlier, they don’t have much incentive to learn since small businesses aren’t the ones paying to get them elected.)

Groups like the National Taxpayers Union have demonstrated that the longer people serve in Congress, the bigger spenders and regulators they become. This is true of conservatives and liberals alike. It is also understandable: representatives are surrounded professionally and socially by people whose jobs are to spend other people’s money and regulate other people’s lives.

Political scientist Mark P. Petracca of the University of California at Irvine wrote:

Whereas representative government aspires to maintain a proximity of sympathy and interest between representatives and represented, professionalism creates authority, autonomy, and hierarchy, distancing the expert from the client. Through this distance may be necessary and functional for lawyers, nurses, physician, accountants, and social scientists, the qualities and characteristics associated with being a ‘professional’ legislator run counter to the supposed goal of the representative democracy. Professionalism encourages an independence of ambition, judgement, and behavior that is squarely at odds with the inherently dependent nature of representative government…

Imagine a Congress composed of teachers, home-makers, business owners, military personnel, writers, and accountants. Surely we would benefit from the diversity of these perspectives, and the awareness of what it means to live daily with the laws we pass. Surely America is best served by a Congress whose members are there out of a sense of civic duty, but who actually live and work in the private sector for the majority of their lives.

Founder Roger Sherman (one of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence) once wrote, “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.” Even in Sherman’s time, when Congress convened for a few months each year, our founders knew the dangers of representatives who couldn’t represent. In our modern era of year-round legislative sessions, the only way to achieve that objective is through term limits.

Term limits demands accountability from our elected leaders. Term limits can guarantee Americans that the candidate will not be focusing on reelection all the time. If we as a team value ourselves and our democracy, we as a team must demand term limits in Congress.

I propose a solution that Congress members of the Senate cannot serve longer than twelve years and members of the House cannot serve longer than 6 years. It gives both the House and the Senate enough time to make a difference but isn’t so long that they lose touch with their constituents. I personally never want to see someone in Congress for 50 years; even 30 years seems outlandish. I cannot fathom the distortion of a human being’s priorities after living and breathing Washington’s hot air for a span of time equal to my entire life.

 

The Gift of “No”

In the last section, we looked at how we need to hold the government accountable for their actions. Before we dive into the specific policy solutions that make up the bulk of this book, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that we also need to hold ourselves accountable. This means saying “no” more often, and being ok when someone needs to tell us no.

When I was little, my mom would never let me have a treat or toy while we were at the grocery store. I never failed to ask for something; she never failed to respond with “no.” Of course, at the same time I thought it was unfair and mean of my mother not to let me have these things that I wanted so badly. But she knew something I did not: she had a family budget that she had to stick to. I did not realize it at the time, but if she said yes to everything I wanted, we would be over our family budget — and we wouldn’t be able to pay for our house or food.  My mother prioritized what we needed over what I wanted, and while I had no idea about those big adult concepts (all I could see was what I wanted), she had the responsibility to think of what was good for the whole family in the long run.

My mother also knew that if I got something just because I wanted it, I would never know what it was like to earn it on my own. She knew if she provided all my wants (not just my basic needs), I would never know how to get my own wants met when I was on my own — I would forever be dependent on others. The only way I learned how to achieve my own wants, needs, and goals was from the gift of “no.”

This simple word is a gift because it teaches self-awareness, self-control, self-discovery, self-accomplishment, self-achievement, self-reliance, and self-confidence. It has been my experience that most people do not discover these gifts within themselves if they are constantly told “yes.” If things are handed to us easily, we never fully reach within ourselves, digging deep to find out what we are made of.

Over generations, our everyday lives have become easier and less physically demanding; a family can survive (and more) with fewer members pitching in. We are losing the raw grit that came with needing to survive, because the reality of our mortality is blurred by all of the conveniences surrounding us.

I’m not suggesting we go back to the old days when everyday life was extremely physically demanding, when tasks like laundry, dishes, and cooking were all-day affairs. It’s not feasible to take away modern technology and conveniences, but it’s also not necessary.

Past generations developed a sense of self and country through the struggle of survival. Being told “no” today is not a struggle on par with farming the rocky soil of Colorado, but because it instills self-control and inspires self-determination, we might be able to gain the same wisdom. In short, the gift of no gives us purpose within all the conveniences of modern life.

We also start to appreciate those conveniences more. When I was younger, my parents would occasionally let me drive their car when no one else needed it. It was a Chevy Malibu, early seventies, with a broken speedometer, a broken gas gauge, and an empty space where the radio used to sit. There was nothing electric about that car, no airbags, barely functioning seatbelts, and certainly no air conditioning. But I loved that car. Not because it was my dream car, but because I had something to drive. It was better than walking or biking (my other two options at the time). One of my all-time favorite sayings is “beggars can’t be choosers.” I knew that someday I would be able to work really hard and buy my own car, but until I made that happen, I was grateful for whatever options I had at the time.

Because my parents said “no, we will not buy you a car,” I had the ambition to buy one myself. Because my parents had given me the gift of no, they had given me even greater gifts: the gift of will, desire, and drive.

I was grateful for their charity, of course, and not once did I complain about receiving something I did not earn. But the gratitude was balanced with a desire to make my own choices. Only with the gift of no did I become a person with a grateful heart, the will to choose my own path, and the drive to forge my own life. 

This applies to far more than physical goods. With the gift of no that my parents gave me, I have always relied on myself to further my life, my friendships, my grades, my character, and my reputation.

So many young people build their sense of self on what has been given to them: toys, clothes, cars, trips, and money. The tragedy is that none of that is real and will never fill up anyone in the long run. The tragedy is when adults put their family in staggering financial debt in order to keep up with the Joneses — their value and self-worth is all tied up in “things” like cars, houses, jobs, and money, because they’ve never known differently. They have never dug deeply within themselves, they have never built a life of meaning without the material things. They have never made friends based on who they are just as a person.

Driving that Chevy Malibu when I was seventeen, I had to find my self-worth in something other than a car. I realized that I was more than my car, that my friendships would not be because of my car, that I could have all these things without the financial debt required of a nice ride.

I learned from the gift of no how to cut every “thing” down to the bare bones. I learned that I’m made of grit and can make tough choices. I can survive and I know how to be resourceful because I’ve been doing it all my life. I know how to self-regulate, self-motivate, self-discipline, self-realize, and self-value. I know can take on any battle, any disappointment, any struggle, and come out a better person, not a broken one — and I did that with the help of the gift of no.

I hope every American with children in their lives will consider the gift of no while bringing up the next generation. After all, you are raising the next President of the United States of America. You are raising our Congressional representatives, you are raising our Supreme Court Justices. We are building the next generation as you read this, so let’s make it purposeful. For these children and for our future of our team, let’s give the gift of no.

 

Change

Any solution, by definition, is a change. This book is full of suggested changes, in policy but also in perspective. To achieve a better America, we need to see things differently, more as the founders saw them, and we need to adjust how we interact with our fellow citizens on Team USA. Change isn’t always easy, of course, so as we start to work on improving our country, we need to think about how we approach change.

It has been my experience that most people dread change and will go to great lengths to avoid it. Usually this comes from a simple fear of the unknown. And it makes sense; we’ve all felt this in one way or another.

I was sitting on my couch one night, writing this book. The view from my couch looking out my sliding glass door is an amazing view of the Rocky Mountains and beautiful, tall, full pine trees. Sometimes in the summer right before sunset, it casts almost a hazy glow in the air; cotton is floating and children are laughing and the world is warm and brilliant. But at night, I hate the sliding glass doors and all the windows in my house. Nothing has changed from day to night except I can’t see; it’s completely dark outside. I fear the unknown and I’m pretty sure the scary guy from the movie Scream is standing in my backyard with a knife, looking through my windows and watching me. It’s the same outside, but because I can’t see it, I fear the worst. 

That’s how change is; it provokes fear of the unknown. We are living our lives looking at a beautiful scene of the Rockies in the daylight, life is stable and good, and then bam — it’s dark, it’s different, and I don’t know where we’re going. It’s scary and I’m positive there’s a serial killer behind that sliding glass door. No, no, no — I don’t want to change!

When we face change, we’re really facing fear, and our bodies have developed natural reactions to fear over the millennia: fight, flight, or play dead. These were extremely useful when we faced mammoths and bears in our caveman days. Over the years, the threats may have changed, but our bodies’ response has not. When humans experience fear or a perceived threat, we naturally respond by fighting, fleeing, or ignoring the situation.

When you play dead, you hold very still, you shut your eyes, and you hope that whatever threat is there simply ignores or passes over you. Playing dead is definitely the passive way to handle things; when it does work, it’s not because of anything you had control over. Either the threat chose to let you live another day, or you simply lucked out.

When you choose flight, at least you’re putting energy into it — it’s not passively letting things happen to you. But more often than not, you don’t really see what you are running from. It could be a bunny rabbit or a huge grizzly bear, but you’re running, you’re putting the energy into getting out of there, no matter what the problem is.

The last natural response is to fight, to face the threat head-on with eyes wide open. You realize you may be eaten alive (literally or figuratively), but you stand your ground. You accept the fear, so you open your eyes, collect data and facts, and make some decisions about how to fix the problem. You participate actively in creating your own future.

Social change is like any other change, and we feel the same natural tendencies toward fighting, fleeing, or playing dead. We can run from social change, which is taxing on energy, resources, and lives. We can play dead and pretend it’s not happening, pretend not to see it, pretend the problem is too big or too bad, or pretend that everything is fine and that the problem will pass.  Or we can open our eyes, learn, grow, and see what is actually happening.

We can know whether we’re facing a bunny or a bear — or an imaginary serial killer — and make decisions after that point. We can relate, we can touch, we can take in information. Information that might include how a problem is affecting our American teammates. Instead of ignoring a problem, we can step into others’ shoes, listen to their struggles, and learn what is actually taking place — not just what our immediate assumption is.

When we listen, someone can say to us, “I know it’s hard and scary and you think the serial killer is behind the door, but I’ve been hurting for so long, the pain is destroying my soul. We have to change because this situation is killing me.”

In our humanity and our nation’s principles we all have a right to the pursuit of happiness. Something as simple as our own fear shouldn’t prevent anyone else from pursuing happiness in their own lives. Change is scary, the black night outside your sliding glass door. You can shut your blinds, lock your door, and pretend it’s not there anymore. But we owe it to our teammates and to our country to open that sliding glass door — to open our eyes, to confront our fear. I know we get scared, I know the what-ifs pile up, but way more often than not, there is something better beyond the change: the beautiful Rocky Mountains, the shining sun, and cotton floating in the wind.