Saturday, November 17, 2012

America's Self Goal

I am a well-wisher of America. I have benefitted immensely from its education, its institutions, work-places, and stories. Hence, in sense I do care what happens to it. I think it’s done itself a disservice by re-electing Barack Obama. I can scarcely believe I am saying this. I am an admirer of Mr Obama, and have long been. But I do believe he is not the best person to lead the US presently. In fact, he may unwittingly do significant harm. His silver tongue may be spinning a powerful tale that may undo the story on which America is built.

Eight years ago in 2004 my brother, who then lived in the US, called me and said: America has found its first black president. Now my brother usually hedges his bets, and is seldom swayed by anything other than a good larger. I was curious. I found out that like millions he had just watched on TV an unknown senate hopeful from Chicago speak at the democrat convention. That stirring speech, perhaps the best post-war oration ever, has since the has become the stuff of legends. I had then managed to catch some excerpts on my travels (I think this was pre-You Tube era), but over the years have watched it several times. It never disappoints. There is a story, there is conviction, and stunning delivery. Like everyone, everywhere, I was smitten. What happened after is well documented. 

Mr Obama's exceptional gift of speech backed by his obvious intellect (he explained things well, simply, and in detail and unlike his predecessor could spell and knew his world capitals), common sense compassionate ideas (more equity is good for everyone, women must have a say in what happens to them, America must be humbler), infectious optimism ("yes we can"), and brilliant strategy (use the internet stupid!; what Barack can do Michelle can do better; segment the hell out of the non white-male vote etc) - resulted in the most unbelievable of electoral victories ever. The fact that he was able to withstand and wither the devastating twin-engine Clinton machine proved this man was top grade reinforced steel.

That said, running a country is somewhat different from running a campaign. Both do  need a sound theory of success and then the ability to execute it to perfection. However, the problem starts when your theory-of-success for a campaign is pretty much the same for that of running a country. i.e. Have a simple popular message that appeals to the majority ("the rich are bad"), invoke fear by hammering it everyday with the regularity of drone flights in Af-Pak , Robin-hood economics (Obamacare), symbolic victories  (Obama got Osama), powerful oratory (speech, after speech, after speech). That may be a sellable story. But this is not the one America was built on.

The genius of America is its entrepreneurship and culture of backing oneself. The great businesses of America be it Walmart, Apple, or P&G, were once small businesses created out of nothing. Not all small businesses grow large, but it its these  that comprise 99% of the employers in the US, provide more than half the jobs and three-fourths of all new-jobs. This entrepreneurial engine, a role model to the world, was crafted over 200 years by a combination of the nothing-to-loose mindset of a new immigrant, the fabled protestant work ethic, and commonsense rule of law, that ensured people could go about their business and yet punish the rule-breakers; like almost no where else. Yes there were loopholes and history is littered with examples of abuse of how the Rockfellers and the Kennedy's actually made their money; but for every such story there were a dozen Franklins, Disneys or Waltons. The smartest and best, ideas and people, usually won; markets conjured, jobs - lots of jobs - got created; and by and large society as a whole benefitted. Most importantly all this inspired the next guy, and future generations, to do the same.

"Barack Obama has never even run a lemonade stand..and it shows" said Senator Kelly Ayotte in the run up to the elections. This is an important comment that has got a lot of attention, but not the response it deserves. Mr Obama has betrayed his true sensibilities on entrepreneurship and private effort, when he says that if you got a business you did not build it on your own, "somebody else made it happen". He actually said that. And went on to explain the invisible role of government in backing enterprise. It's not his one speech or Ms. Ayotte's one-off comment thats particularly revealing. It's the consistent pattern of undermining success and drumming up entitlement in the Presidents powerfully delivered speeches that is most disturbing. Depending on how you count, between half and two-thirds of America is on some kind of government hand-out today. A net beneficiary as opposed to a net contributor; this in the richest country on earth. You can take pot-shots at the lemonade stand owners, but their existence is the only thing that's going to pay the bills. It would be terrifying if the young started believing that taking pot-shots will pay the bills. Mr O's "they are depriving us" story may be a politically astute one that unites the coalition of minorities that that have propelled him to office; however, it can have most damaging repercussions for a generation ahead. 

Stories from the top do matter, because they impact what people believe, and thereby what they do . Lets face it, even the most powerful political leader of a country cannot over turn the economy or culture - favorably or otherwise - in a blink long 4 to 8 year term. Their impact comes from the examples they set, messages they build, the signal they send out, and the stories they tell. Lincoln ("no to slavery") , Roosevelt ("new deal to re build America"), Kennedy ("man on the moon"), Reagan ("self reliance and lean government") had "generational-impact" based on the messages they chose and backed by action. 

When I meet smart young Americans, including those of immense intellectual privilege, I see them imbibing the eloquent message of "them" bashing. In fact they   are now fluent and eloquent narrators themselves. They remind me of what my friend Venkat recently told me. Apparently, the writer Jug Suriya once said that if you ask a question in Calcutta, you do not get an answer..."You get an oration". This is what seems to have happened to America in some measure. Bring up questions on “innovation”, “meritocracy”, "competitiveness", "work ethic", "deficit", and you get very long winded speeches on “top 1%”, “what George Bush did”, and “the religious right”. Yes your response is profound, and eloquent, and true in parts as well. Yes I understand it too. But it is not answering the question I asked. In fact it does not sound like America anymore. Second hand, guilt-tinged maybe, somewhat confused, always long, and never sure of itself. From another place.

But, I want to hear the sound of America again. 

* * *
Eloquence at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection, but addresses itself entirely to the desires and affections, captivating the willing hearers, and subduing their understanding.
- David Hume

1 comment:

  1. Taking in the context of Obama's words surrounding the statement that you made, he was making a simple point that I believe he stated incorrectly. He was saying that infrastructure investments, education investments, and other kinds of common, public goods are an necessary but insufficient condition for American business owners' success. Amazon's warehouses would be nothing without our interstate system. That said, just building the roads would not have made Amazon. (And Amazon, by the way, is a huge convenience for me and, at the same time, pays workers too little and puts them in poor working conditions. Why must we speak of business in only glowing terms of progress? Businesses are full of promise and problems, just like anything else.)

    But I suppose I am just another American convinced of the rhetoric of the 1%, without full access to rationality and consciousness?

    To me, the good sound of America is starting a business and paying workers well. It's experimenting with organizational forms that allow for cooperative ownership. It's creating laws that protect the most vulnerable from otherwise unchecked economic and social exploitation, through ingenuity, smarts, and collective struggle.

    The sound of America, sadly, is also a financial industry that literally covered up a crisis they knew was coming because of their need to "creatively" generate profit by poisoning the system with risk they knew about. There are many bankers and mortgage dealers involved now in the Occupy Movement, bringing their expertise to trying to fix what they themselves admit they broke so badly.

    Why must America not be allowed to change and progress?