Not your grandmother's war bonds

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Just as administrations come and go in our nation's capital, so do temporary exhibits. Some leave more lasting legacies than others. While almost a decade ago and on display for mere months, we still recall a striking poster exhibit from World War I at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum, just blocks from where we first worked together at the Treasury Department.

In a bygone era, patriotic posters appealing to our best selves were ever-present at schools, in factories and offices, in the local grocery window. It would have been nearly impossible to escape encouragement from Uncle Sam or a flag-draped Lady Liberty — "if you can't enlist, invest" or "even a little can help a lot" — while going about one's daily 20th-century routine.

As former government economists, touring that Smithsonian exhibit during the 2007 surge in Iraq introduced more questions than answers. The active engagement of yesteryear depicted in the hallowed halls of one of our national museums was something to observe, not to touch. Even 50 years ago, Americans would have known veterans and heard their stories; today a mere 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces.

For more than 80 years, the United States has sold bonds as non-marketable Treasury securities to encourage public participation in government efforts. Americans were encouraged to "beat back the Huns with Liberty Bonds" in World War I, and even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt purchased the very first Series E "Defense Bond" to support America's involvement in World War II.

Over the years, American icons such as Frank Sinatra, Norman Rockwell and Judy Garland marketed war bonds. Bond sales were featured on popular television shows like "Lassie," "Father Knows Best" and "Superman." Even Bugs Bunny got into the act.

As debt instruments issued to finance wartime expenditures, government-backed bonds offered a low-interest, low-risk means for Americans to invest. However, they were — and can be — far more than that. Beyond financing budget gaps, bonds offer everyday Americans the opportunity to engage. Lesser known, for example, are the National Service Board for Religious Objectors' bonds, purchased primarily by Mennonites and Quakers during World War II.

By now, it is old news that by asking Americans to go to the mall, rather than asking us to step up, our government missed an opportunity to convert post-9/11 goodwill into more constructive — and sustainable — efforts. After the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, Liberty Bonds were issued to help pay for reconstruction, but where were the sweeping campaigns encouraging communities across the country to contribute? Fifteen years on, the 2016 election offers a window into the public's frustrations — a public that, at best, feels little connection to our nation's decision-making, and at worst, feels unbridled rage.

Americans still love our lore and our heroes, yet feel increasingly disconnected and frustrated. A study by the Pew Research Center shows that millennials are losing confidence in government and churches, and participation in civic, political, and professional organizations has decreased by almost half since 1989. People increasingly exercise their voices via means other than our traditional institutions, be they Facebook likes or in 140 characters. This primary season demonstrates that Americans are demanding a voice in addressing our national challenges.

From Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: Press 'refusing to report' I'm winning Crossing fingers: A Canadian observer's view of the US election Post headline asks: ‘How fascist is Donald Trump?’ MORE's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersAT&T-Time Warner merger: Rigged by cozy regulatory relationships? Juan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number Trump: Podesta a 'nasty guy' MORE's (Vt.) viral "America" ad, complete with idyllic images and the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, this year's campaign trail appeals to a mix of patriotism, nostalgia and anxiety. Politics aside, and after the ballot boxes are put away, responsible governing requires a grounded understanding of the challenges we face as a nation.

It is time for our national leaders — and those aspiring to national leadership — to listen to the public beyond the next news cycle. Not only do we have the means to ensure Americans' priorities are more accurately incorporated into national decisions, but today it is even easier to empower voters to invest directly in our collective future.

Critics will be quick to suggest that bond sales have never fully funded our wars. Fair enough. The goal is not to replace the national budget, but to supplement it. More important, bond campaigns like the one during World War I spurred sustained community efforts and a sense of national ownership across the country. Americans invested and got involved.

Today's post-recession economy is inherently different from a boom time when controlling inflation is paramount. In an increasingly sophisticated technological and economic landscape, bonds are not blunt instruments. At a time when we can easily summon an Uber or fund a new venture via Kickstarter, so can we leverage increasingly user-friendly and diverse financial instruments to offer Americans greater voice in investing in our shared future.

It would be folly to leave national priorities only to politicians striving toward Election Day. Roosevelt reminded us to "never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country."

As we consider national priorities beyond defense — healthy communities, strong schools, reliable infrastructure, clean air and water — we far exceed any single economic or policy goal when Americans invest and engage. We become a stronger country when decision-makers have real buy-in for national priorities.

Babcock-Lumish, founder of Islay Consulting, served as the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute's inaugural director of public policy and as an economics professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Kifayat, the Gen Next Foundation's head of global security ventures and a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund, has held senior positions at the White House, Treasury Department and State Department, where he most recently served as Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryEffective sanctions relief on Iran for sanctions’ sake What would a Hillary Clinton presidency look like? 5 reasons Trump's final debate performance sealed his 2016 coffin MORE's acting special representative to Muslim communities.