October 26th, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
Is our government broken?
More and more people think so. The current presidential administration makes periodic claims that we are in an economic recovery, but at the same time growth is still slowing and unemployment figures stay around ten percent.
With more American deaths in Afghanistan during the last week of July than any week to date, things seem to be deteriorating at home and abroad.
To make matters worse, few people believe that the opposing Republican Party has much more to offer than the Democrats.
With neither side poised to really fix things, few Americans have a lot of hope for the future of government leadership. Here a few of the issues vexing citizens.
A Missing Recovery
First, even though many politicians have been claiming that we are experiencing an economic recovery, it doesn’t feel like it to most Americans.
The Obama White House doesn’t seem very friendly to small business.
Most of the entrepreneurs and businesses who do hold cash aren’t about to hire or expand in an environment where their taxes and regulatory burden could be increased at any point by an unfriendly Administration.
Ironically, Washington is responding by promising to increase taxes and regulations. Understandably, those who hire are skittish.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Giethner said in July that we’ve reached a point where private hiring—rather than government spending—is the answer to economic growth.
But until the government starts supporting small business, and as long as it refuses to incentivize free enterprise, the economy will struggle.
The 30% has gained much influence over citizens by convincing them that it was private business that caused the recession in the first place.
Somehow, this view has successfully convinced much of the public that the Bush Administration, big banks, Wall Street and all small businesses are the same group.
Those who read the fine print, however, are clear that policies from the Clinton and Bush Administrations led to the mortgage crisis.
Moreover, big government and big business together caused the recession. In the meantime, both ignored small business and continue to do so.
As a result, the 70% is confused and unable to keep the 30% in check. So more government policies hurt the economy and make it unwise or unfeasible for small businesses to hire and grow.
In the meantime, much of the Right is busy labeling Democrats as “socialists” rather than helping incentivize growth and prosperity.
Both sides seem to mean well, but one has unbounded faith in government and the other is preoccupied attacking that faith.
While the two sides posture, the plight of small business is sometimes discussed but remains unaided.
What the Citizens Want
Second, this problem is deeper than most people realize.
Since World War II, the United States has promoted a mixture of free enterprise and big government. In history, societies typically emphasized one or the other.
When big government ruled, enterprise was highly regulated and taxed; where free enterprise was the focus, taxes were small, regulations were minimal, and governments were limited in size, scope and budget.
But in modern America, no politician from any party can claim success unless he/she has “done something in office.”
And to nearly all Americans, “doing something” means increasing government action to benefit the pet cause or regional constituency.
If President Obama doesn’t pass much of his agenda, his political friends and competitors alike will label him ineffective.
Americans in general want their politicians to do a lot and are disappointed when officials fail in this.
The irony of the American voter is that “doing a lot” immediately earns most politicians a place on the voters’ list of officials to vote out.
Americans today want the impossible: low taxes and lots of government programs.
The Economist summarized it this way:
In the end, the question of whether a country is governable turns on how much government you think it needs. America’s founders injected suspicion of government not only into the constitution but also into the political DNA of its people. And even in the teeth of today’s economic woes, at least as many Americans seem to think that what ails them is too much government, not too little.
“But there is a catch. However much Americans say they want a small government, they seem wedded to the expensive benefits of the big one they actually have…With deficits running at $1 trillion a year, and in order to stay solvent, they will have at some point to cut spending, pay more taxes, or both….To balance the books, politicians have sometimes to do things the people themselves oppose—even in America. That will be the true test of whether the country is governable.”
Americans must either choose big government and be willing to pay for and submit to it, or they must move toward smaller, less intrusive government and be willing to enjoy fewer government programs.
When voters want the prosperity of freedom along with the bread and circuses of massive government, every election is a referendum on incumbents.
Eventually, though (and the day of reckoning appears to be close on the horizon), something will have to give.
Unfortunately, few societies make such hard choices until they are forced upon them by war, depression, pandemic or other major crises.
Sadly, few nations have the leadership or the fortitude to adopt the simple solution of spurring major growth and prosperity by de-regulating, de-taxing and freeing up the economy.
Freedom works, but few in history have been willing to adopt it.
We are unable to overcome these and many of our deepest challenges because of the way we distribute leadership in our society.
The American founders envisioned a truly great educational system, built around schools in every locale, to train their youth in the great ideas of mankind’s history, as well as the latest practical arts and sciences.
They built the early American schools to train empowered citizens who would protect freedom, foster prosperity, leadership, and character in all walks of American life.
They wanted an educational system that prepared their youth to become effective in their families, communities, and careers.
This vision helped create a nation that by 1946 produced over half of the world’s goods and services with only 6% of the globe’s population.
Freedom works, and the success of the American constitutional-free-enterprise model was spectacular. In the process, this system over time addressed, and — in some cases, even began to resolve its biggest negatives, including slavery and other inequities.
Unfortunately, by the late 1930s, the citizens and leaders who built this great model of success, freedom, and prosperity sent their children and grandchildren to schools which rejected this system, and instead adopted a new style of education focused mostly on career training.
Sadly, these American schools established by the our founders were replaced after World War II by the German model which was based on socio-economic class divisions.
In the “new” system, the elites still received leadership education (like all citizens had before 1939) while the middle and lower classes were educated only for jobs.
As this system grew, a Germanic-style grading system reinforced class-society advancements among the youth.
The maladies of credentialism, class divisions, and reliance on experts made their way into mainstream American culture. From 1939 to 1979, these contagions grew and infected the Founders’ classless and “free American” vision.
In such a system, the motto was: “A students work for B students.” The concept of “The Company Man” spread and Americans became addicted to big institutions.
Freedom and entrepreneurial values gave way to competing for executive positions and benefits packages. The goal of employeeship replaced the American dream.
Career became the purpose of schooling in almost everyone’s mind, and ownership and leadership values begin to literally disappear.
Eventually big institutions became truly massive, and anything except employeeship was considered inferior and backward.
In this environment, young people with a sense of leadership, idealism and ambitions to make a great impact on society split between the Left and the Right.
Those coming from traditionally conservative families tended toward majors and careers in business, while youth from more liberal backgrounds leaned towards the media and legal professions.
Most of today’s national leaders were part of this split.
The Reagan era ushered in a revolution of support for and promotion of free enterprise ideas and values.
Numerous non-traditional business models (like multi-level and network marketing) put individuals at the center of building a personal business rather than working as an employee, and eventually non-traditional educational options (from private and charter to home and online opportunities) grew in popularity.
Employeeship was still the dominant view, but a rising minority embraced the freedoms and prosperity of entrepreneurship. The dot.com boom and Roaring 90’s soon followed, and the entrepreneurial sector slowly grew.
Today a new culture of education and business is evolving out of the Great Recession and all that led up to it. A new maxim seems to be much more complex than in past generations:
- B students work for C students
- A students teach or work in government
- Those who cared little for grades and a lot about learning are building small businesses
Note that “those who cared little for grades and a lot about learning” often come from non-traditional private, charter, home and online learners, as well as from immigrants who are leading in entrepreneurial successes. And more than a few come from the traditional schools.
Since small business accounts for 80% of America’s economic growth, this is a significant development. Unfortunately, the number of people in the entrepreneurial sector is still very small.
Whether purposely or as a side effect, we are still training the overwhelming majority of our youth to believe that being A students means getting a good job and that employeeship is the greatest goal for education and even lifestyle.
Satirist P.J. O’Rourke addressed the problem this way:
America has made the mistake of letting the A student run things. It was A students who briefly took over the business world during the period of derivatives, credit swaps, and collateralized debt obligations. We’re still reeling from the effects…
“It was a bunch of A students at the Defense Department who planned the syllabus for the Iraq War….The U.S. tax code was written by A students….Now there’s health care reform—just the kind of thing that would earn an A on a term paper from that twerp of a grad student who teaches Econ 101…
“A students must do what teachers and textbooks want and do it the way the teachers and texts want it done….Such brisk apple-polishing happens to be an all-too-good preparation for politics. This is because a student’s success at education and a politician’s success at politics are measured mostly by input rather than outcome.”
Perhaps even more disturbing is that most of our Idealistic youth with ambitions to improve the world are still going after jobs in big business or big government.
The thing is, working for a big corporation or in a government job are unlikely places to really make a positive difference in the world.
We are distributing leadership in the way aristocratic and socialistic societies always have, and the future will unfold accordingly unless something changes.
We desperately need a rebirth of the entrepreneurial ideal.
The New Religion: Employeeship
Unfortunately, it’s not just the schools and universities that are continuing this outdated focus on jobs as the end-all of education and life.
Movies and television often demonize entrepreneurs while dedicating most of their time to stories about employees.
Full-time sports channels seem to dedicate as much time to the business side of athletes as to the entertainment, making sports role models as valued for their lucrative contracts as for their abilities on the playing field.
Even elected officials more typically refer to their role as a job than as public service.
Recent administrations and the media have referred to the constitutionally-titled commander in chief as the nation’s CEO. There are many other examples.
Because the “job-is-life” view is so prevalent, it has even become normal for successful entrepreneurs to see their work as done as soon as they can live comfortably.
In earlier generations (those that built and maintained American freedom), such successful entrepreneurs considered it their duty to spend the second half of their life helping society greatly improve.
Perhaps only parents and community leaders can effectively counter this trend and help more youth who want to help improve the world seek a true leadership education and seriously consider engaging in entrepreneurial careers.
Repairing the Break
So, to answer our question, yes, government is broken. The break is repairable, but it will take some major work and effort on the part of this generation.
When freedom is decreasing through constantly increasing regulations, government is broken. When the free enterprise system is under attack from our own government, government is broken.
When a tenth of our working society can’t get a job, and when the government responds by increasing taxes and regulations on those who could provide the jobs if they were free to do so, government is broken.
When two parties hold a monopoly on government, and where both increase spending and regulation no matter who is in office, government is broken.
But all of this misses the real point.
When most of society seeks employeeship above all else and every facet of life revolves around employeeship, much more than government is going to be broken.
Employeeship certainly has a place in effective nations, but it should be prioritized behind things like family leadership, citizenship, and private ownership.
Another name for these is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (or alternatively, as Jefferson originally wrote, “life, liberty and property”).
A successful society is made up of at least the following things:
- Effective parents, grandparents and other family leaders who help raise good, wise and industrious adults to take their place
- Citizens who are well-educated in freedom and leadership and who keep government, business and other officials in check so the society can remain free and prosperous
- Owners who improve the prosperity of society, in a free enterprise system where all can be owners
- A constitutionally guaranteed freedom where all are treated equally before the law and all are protected in their inalienable rights
How the President Can Repair the Economy
In the 2008 election President Obama was supported by the Left (who loved his promises of economic liberalism), but he was elected by independents who saw in him a possible end to the corruption of the Bush years and a potentially great leader for the United States.
The “Leadership Thing” swept him into office. Now, the Obama Administration could greatly boost the economy by deeply promoting entrepreneurship—both symbolically and in reduced taxes and regulations.
Such incentives would spur more hiring, investment and expansion, and a recovery would follow that Americans could really believe in.
In fact, the President could probably accomplish this without changing any policy at all, simply by warming to small business and genuinely becoming friendly to entrepreneurs.
As a friend, a member of a minority, told me about President Carter:
“I didn’t agree with his politics or policies, but I just feel that he loved me and my people and cared about us. I never felt that from Reagan or Bush, and so I voted Democratic even though I was more aligned with the politics of the Republicans.”
An old advertising proverb says that people make choices emotionally and then use logic to defend it.
No matter what Washington says, and no matter what the economic numbers show, most entrepreneurs are unlikely to increase jobs and boost the economy through investments as long as they think the man in the White House basically dislikes and mistrusts them.
Even liberal-leaning businessmen are worried that the President isn’t supportive.
The White House could drastically help the recovery simply by changing its bias against small business. If this is just a perceived dislike of business, not a real one, they can simply change their message.
If, on the other hand, the Administration really does mistrust or dislike small business, it should reconsider. After all, unlike Wall Street, big banks and big corporations, small business simply cannot be blamed for America’s economic challenges.
It has been the victim of the mistakes made by both big business and past government. Yet it keeps plugging along, keeping the recession from being much worse.
And small business certainly is the group most likely to overcome high unemployment.
Indeed, when the economy does make a serious comeback, entrepreneurs will be leading the way. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will extend its “Yes, We Can” philosophy to those who have the most potential to drastically grow our economy.
It is time for all Americans—from the White House to our individual living rooms—to pour out a deep, genuine and heartfelt admiration and “thank you” to those who run small businesses.
Whatever the politicians of any party do, the greatest need is for parents, grandparents and all of us to rekindle an excitement for entrepreneurship in the youth.
The future of America’s freedom and prosperity may well depend on it. As long as free enterprise isn’t flourishing, our government will be broken.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.