Agricultural Attitude Adjustment Act:

Let’s call it the AAAA, or quad-A for short. It’ll be the headline of the new presidency, endorsed with vigor by Washington, Lincoln, FDR and JFK. How innovative, too! Four-letter acronyms are in vogue, and the citizenry needs historical grounding. Imagine the presidential debates but, instead of Joe the Plumber, it’s Mary-I’m-going-to-consume-less-and-sacrifice-more sounding her national plea. Whoever wins the White House will have more than policy to fix. It’s the American ethos, our national attitude toward food, consumption and waste that needs adjustment. Her proposal? The Agricultural Attitude Adjustment Act.

The AAAA isn’t policy. It sets an example; it is a treatise on responsibility and respect for our nation’s food system and the health of our planet. Perhaps America’s biggest problems are policy-based, yet without change on the personal level our prosperity is threatened. What problems might the AAAA address? Observe Yale’s dining halls — stand by the dish-scrape in your college and watch, just for a few minutes. Many students are innocent, but too many aren’t: pounds and pounds of uneaten food is thrown away, simply tossed aside. This may seem trivial but is indicative of America’s nearly universal agricultural attitude problem. Michael Pollan, the food-policy academic and New York Times columnist, provides telling statistics. Today, ten calories of fossil fuel generates a single calorie of food energy, whereas in 1940 each calorie of fossil fuel produced 2.3 calories of food energy. Let’s revisit the dish scrape: each calorie that goes down the drain sucks 10 calories of oil down with it.

Enter the AAAA. The next president certainly needs to reform the agricultural system to use less fossil fuel, but an equally important task will be reviving America’s respect for the value of food.

JFK understood the challenge. He was honest with the American people, partially transferring responsibility for sound governance from Washington to mainstream America. Government can only do so much — the willing attitude of the American people is what makes real change. Take trickle-down economics for example: it doesn’t work. Likewise, while Washington labors to fix policy someone must step forth to lead the American people, not just government bureaucrats, into a new age of responsibility, moderation and cooperation. That man is unequivocally Barack Obama.

John McCain is a good person — I still believe it, even with his campaign’s recent turn toward Rovian mud-slinging. But what example does he set for America? One of discipline? One of modesty? McCain couldn’t possibly legislate the AAAA: his innumerable houses and VP pick show a shocking disregard for long-term sustainable principles. In the face of economic hardship, both candidates are susceptible to nearsightedness, but McCain seems especially prone to the capriciousness and reckless decision-making that have plagued the last eight years. Our next president needs to resist short-term fixes and embrace long-term solutions. Reprogramming the American food system will be an enormous step toward that goal, but the people need a bold leader who can genuinely embrace the AAAA as a necessary accompaniment.

Recall the three-R’s of sustainability: reduce, reuse, recycle. This country has focused on recycling for far too long — we cling to the stubborn notion that technology will allow our lifestyles to remain excessive and inefficient. Happiness and success aren’t linked to excess and waste. Our focus must be on reducing consumption in the food system and out. Obama embodies the ideals of the AAAA; it’s about making attitude adjustments from the bottom up. Early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said that FDR had a “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” Barack Obama offers us the best of both. It’s a good thing, too, because the AAAA is complicated stuff — I’m not sure FDR could have handled it.