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COLUMN

Eric J. Plosky

Just as in recent memory, presidential candidates this election season are fixated on the chaff. What about the wheat? Abortion, as an issue, typifies what I mean. Yes, millions of Americans care deeply about abortion. But this is not an issue that deserves to hog the national spotlight. There are far more pressing concerns.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the big issues do rear their ugly heads. But all too often, candidates waste their fiery, impassionedrhetoric on the small stuff. School prayer -- this is of paramount importance? Even issues like gays in the military and gun control aren’t really issues in and of themselves; they’re only manifestations of a society in need of fixing. But politicians are more comfortable talking about sick society’s symptoms than about the root causes, the underlying problems, the stuff that really needs to be addressed.

I offer the following big issues for the reader’s consideration.

Gender, sex, and family. What will happen when homosexuality is no longer a Thing? How will that affect marriage and the family? The gender-bending power of the Internet raises the same question. Sexual identity is no longer a surety.

Education, global competition, changing work patterns. How do we teach children to be responsible citizens while we train them to compete inthe workplace? The answer is surely more complicated than wiring classrooms and funneling tax dollars into voucher programs. Worker training must also be redefined as careers become shorter and flightier.

Deterioration of government. The Man is suffering a brain drain unnoticed by most. Bright do-gooder graduates now flock to non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), not to the public sector. How will government keep competent and competitive?

Demographics -- the elderly. America is graying; can the economywithstand the addition of 40 million senior citizens? More importantly, will our culture have to adapt? Will retirees launch new careers and explore the outdoors, or will they clog nursing homes and bring down Medicare and Social Security?

Demographics -- nonwhites. Our society is already fragmented with dozens of Different-American groups. Is the trend toward increasing fragmentation, or will we begin to move toward greater unity? Whites, especially, will have to consider this as their majority is quickly whittled away.

The income gap. Wider and wider yawns the expanse between rich and poor. Are we to be five percent haves and ninety-five percent have-nots, or will we stop at ninety/ten? 80/20? The Darwinian market, left to itself, will eventually concentrate all American wealth in the hands of one individual -- surely that’s not what we want.

Energy and the environment. Even more worrisome internationally -- will two and a half billion Chinese and Indians expect to generate electricity using coal? Global warming, resource depletion, and extinctions grow ever more palpable and ominous.

Transportation, communications, and infrastructure. People are unprecedentedly mobile, able to move as fast and as flexibly as the Internet-paced global economy demands. Will transport continue to evolve fast enough, or will it be outstripped -- or replaced -- by telecommunications technology? Surely the automobile won’t be able to keep up for long. Living and settlement patterns will be revolutionized as physical and digital movement becomes more and more frequent and less and less expensive. Commerce will change, too, as fewer people go to goods and more goods go to people, thanks to e-tailing.

Suburban decay. Soon all those cheaply-built postwar colonial ticky-tacky houses will start to fall down. Are the suburbs here to stay, or will Levittown and its ilk become modern-day ghost towns? The superior sustainability of traditional cities may promote their resurgence.

Worldwide issues. Global health is of growing concern as diseases like AIDS ravage unprepared nations. Governments distracted by war and repression might find themselves sidelined, unable to summon the resources or credibility to step onto the world stage. International trade issues will pressure laggards to keep up and will redefine global corporatization and taxation. Those committed to belligerence over economics may further the development of multipolar nuclear alliances. Forward-thinking nations might instead unite on space exploration. This is all a lot to think about, which is why most politicians don’t. But we’re MIT people. We should certainly be able to see the small issues as part of a big picture.