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I remember hearing an interview of an engineer at NASA in 1981, on the eve of the first space shuttle launch. He said, “When we light up those SRBs (solid rocket boosters), we don’t know where it’s going, but we know it’s going to go somewhere.”

There are times in our collective lives when we don’t know where we are going, but we know we are going to go somewhere. Most Americans probably think we are in such a time. The SRBs about to propel us into the future are fearsome. Not least among them is our national debt, which is now 10 and a half trillion dollars and growing by almost four billion dollars every day. We owe the Chinese alone more than half a trillion dollars. And we’re borrowing more all the time, including every nickel of the so-called federal stimulus package.

Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Well said, and apropos our national debt. We Americans cannot indefinitely remain both debtors and free. We know we must defend our freedom with arms. But will we default on our debts to fight a war? Or will we lose a war to pay our debts? Or, can we discover a way to win our wars and still pay our debts?

The Nov. 23 Boston Globe contained a special supplement, called “16 Ideas From Boston 2008,” which reported on the results of an annual Ideas-Fest held in October. The rest of the same edition of the Globe reported on the soaring federal deficit, the world-wide financial implosion, a vicious war in the Congo, starving children in Haiti, and half a dozen shootings and stabbings in Boston within one or two miles of the Ideas-Fest.

Can the power of ideas save us? Can a few good minds literally think up the solutions to our problems? Or is this the basest form of human vanity, a philosophy that threatens to sap our resolve to save ourselves by sacrifice and hard work? We can look to the past for examples in both directions.

Political, economic and social theories, all creations of the human mind, have been the bane and boon of mankind throughout history. More specific inventions are no less ambiguous in their effects. Standardized replaceable parts and steam power ushered in the industrial revolution, with all the good and evil it contained. Moveable type was used to print the Bible, the Gettysburg address, and Mein Kampf. And what of today’s big ideas, things like the Internet and the spectrum of nascent biotechnologies? What good and evil will they bring us? The jury is still out.

It is tempting to think of ideas as labor-saving devices. But like the electric carving knife, they sometimes turn out to be more laborious than the labor they are meant to save. Their inventors’ promises are as wrong as Donald Rumsfield promising us that “smart bombs” would enable a “surgical” victory in Iraq. Every good idea in history is matched by 10 bad ones, many tragically so.

Yet labor and sacrifice bring their own ambiguities. The transcontinental railroad was the product of untold broken backs but ushered in an era of financial and geopolitical expansion. Yet the Egyptian pyramids are anachronistic monuments to futilely sacrificed human energy. There is no guarantee that huge expenditures of labor and a willingness to make any sacrifice will bring success. Soldiers on both sides of every war fight bravely and die nobly.

Many will say that the best course is to combine the two, to both think hard and work hard, or work smart. Maybe so. But gray paint mixed with gray paint makes gray paint. In the end, what will really determine where we go? God? Human labor and imagination? Chance?

Our economy is collapsing. We are intent upon trying to save it with borrowed money. It is a risky plan, availing ourselves of powerful forces we may not be able to control. We’re going to borrow and spend more than a trillion dollars on a gamble. We all hope it works. We’re on the eve of a launch. We cannot know where we’re going, but one thing we can be sure of. We’re going to go somewhere.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at

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