New Year's morning always seems to brim with optimism, no matter how tired you are from celebrating the night before.

Today we have a new, clean slate, and a new number, 2006, to roll around on our tongues and remember to put on our checks.

I like to think undaunted optimism is an American trait. I know it isn't unique to Americans, but something about it is woven into our national character, like the eternal grin on those old pictures of Theodore Roosevelt. He may have ruled the White House a century ago, but I doubt he'd be surprised at all to know we're zipping around the world in jets today and using little boxes called "computers" to either casually tap into the world's vast store of knowledge or to communicate to far-flung parts of the world.

You get the feeling Teddy knew we could do whatever we set our minds to.

Which is why I tend to discount most of the dire predictions that circulate this time of the year.

There are plenty of folks out there, nationally and locally, eager to provide shocking evidence as to why our collective lives are about to fall into a sink hole. Locally, we hear about the wave of people moving into the state and how that is going to burden our public schools to the breaking point. Nationally, the fears run the full spectrum, from concerns about terrorism on the right to environmental degradation and global warming on the left.

But then, if we listened to the experts years ago, we all should be starving by now in a world that no longer can sustain itself, the second ice age would have devoured us and democracy should have lost out to the economic and scientific juggernaut of the Soviet empire.

The Soviets, by the way, had their own version of optimism back in the day.

In 1960, they published a book titled, "Russian Science in the 21st Century." According to a New York Times review at the time, the two Russian journalists who edited the book said whimsically they were instructed to leap ahead to 2007, the 90th anniversary of the glorious Russian revolution, and report on the marvelous things they found. Some of their predictions were fairly accurate. For instance, they foresaw kidney transplants and bloodless surgeries. Strange, though, that they missed seeing the fact that their empire had collapsed in a heap of political and fiscal dry rot.

Or maybe they found it a little awkward to talk about that when they returned.

Predicting the future can be about as easy as assembling those toys you gave the kids for Christmas while looking in a mirror. And yet you can find plenty of evidence that folks a long time ago envisioned a lot of the stuff we take for granted today, from airplanes to MP3 players. That's because you can't invent or create something until you imagine it first. And by all indications, imaginations are still pretty healthy in this country.

Here's one measure of that: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reports that a record 406,302 patent applications were filed during fiscal 2005. During the same time, the office granted 151,079 patents for new inventions. Not bad, considering a little over 7 million patents have been granted since 1790.

Here's another: Several popular sites on the Internet allow you to send e-mail time capsules to yourself up to 30 years in the future.

Only an optimist would try to invent something new to improve society, and only someone who felt the future would be worthwhile would send himself an e-mail to be opened in 30 years.

Sure, Utah's schools are overcrowded. But you don't have to spend too many hours squinting through microfilm to see that this newspaper reported on similar worries going back many decades. I have my own ideas about how to deal with the problem. But unless Utahns and their timid lawmakers are ready to let the private market help through vouchers or some other sort of incentive, I might as well stick those ideas back into my sock drawer where they'll stay warm.

Still, even if the state insists on continuing a public-school monopoly, I have every reason to believe the future won't be as dire as many people think.

It's not that we don't face big problems or that our challenges won't tax our best thinking. It's not that our lawmakers won't make mistakes or that corruption or unforeseen disasters won't at times lead to suffering. It's that in a free society such as ours, the best thinking tends to be pretty imaginative and good, and it rises to the top. And Americans, despite what some would have you believe, are still undaunted. They believe the future will be bright. They want to trust in Teddy Roosevelt's big, confident, toothy smile.

That's a good thought as you wake to face a new year.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]