June 8th, 2016 // 12:08 am @ Oliver DeMille
Washington’s “Grin and Bear It” Message About an Economy that’s Still Struggling
The Need/Desire Question
In a 1927 issue of Harvard Business Review Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers wrote the following prescription for the nation: “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture.” How? “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” (Cited in The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha, p. 78.)
What a thing to say! And it has happened, just as Mazur recommended. But in the process, something else happened as well. Not only were people convinced to want more and newer things, but government got caught up in the same quest. And people began desiring many more and new things from government as well. This changed our entire culture.
More recently, President Obama has assured the nation that a slow growth economy is the new normal. But is this good news? Or very bad news masked by a smile? Truth: it’s certainly not good news. (See the new report: “The World is Flat: Surviving Slow Growth” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs)
But before we address this, let’s take a little quiz. Just for fun.
Messages and Meanings
The following quote is about what nation?
(1) “_____________ will not be able to grow its economy…without…privatizing state-owned companies, [and] loosening regulations…”
Or consider this:
(2) “It may have…an undervalued currency, a debt-to-GDP ratio of 250 percent, and an average annual GDP growth rate over the last decade of less than 1 percent…. [but] Life expectancy is among the highest in the world; crime rates are among the lowest. The…people enjoy excellent health care and education.”
(3) “Middle-class wages stopped rising more than 30 years ago, but…low interest rates…and easy credit obscured the problem, allowing people to bridge the gap between their stagnant incomes and their spending.” How? By going into massive debt.
What is most interesting to me about all three of these quotes is how applicable they are to the United States today. Just re-read item 1 above. It could be a very realistic (and important) “To Do” list for Washington in 2016. Yet it was written about today’s Russia under Putin. (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016, p. 20)
Still, Washington does need to heed its message:
- privatize state-owned companies that are a drain on taxpayers and gum up the free market
- loosen regulations that are killing small business and sending investment capital to other nations
Item 2 above could also seem to be about the United States, but in fact it describes today’s Japan: “It may have…an undervalued currency, a debt-to-GDP ratio of 250 percent, and an average annual GDP growth rate over the last decade of less than 1 percent…. [but] Life expectancy is among the highest in the world; crime rates are among the lowest. The…people enjoy excellent health care and education.” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016, p. 50)
The intended message here is clear: “If the people have good health care, education, and a stable economy, everything is good. A growth economy isn’t necessary.”
Starts and Stops
In fact, in the United States, “Middle-class wages stopped rising more than 30 years ago, but…low interest rates…and easy credit obscured the problem, allowing people to bridge the gap between their stagnant incomes and their spending.” (Ibid., pp. 50-51)
But how have Americans masked falling wages? The answer is illuminating:
- By going into massive mortgage debt (eventually leading to the housing bubble crash and the Great Recession).
- By using credit cards, car loans, student loans and building up major consumer debt. The average U.S. household has over 97 thousand dollars of debt and growing. (The Motley Fool, January 2015)
- By more than doubling the amount of work they do, with both parents typically now in the full-time workforce, instead of just one breadwinner.
- By working longer hours. The average workweek in the United States is now 46.7 hours, not the 1950s model of 40 hours and a crisp 9-5 workday. (USA Today: Modern Woman, Fall/Winter 2015) Over the course of a month, that’s an extra 29 hours—almost an extra workday every week compared to American workers of the 1950s.
- By depending on increasing amounts of government support, including “free” public school education, “free” health care for those who qualify, and a number of even more direct government programs and assistance.
In all this, according to Gallup, less than 20 percent of U.S. workers love their job. Around 80 percent are in jobs they hate, dislike, or feel less than passionate about. Moreover, most Americans don’t believe that their current job will ever get them ahead financially. They’re just barely paying the bills—if that.
Still, the current message from Washington and labor experts is that things are fine, that the economy has improved under president Obama’s leadership, and that we should be grateful. Most people won’t see financial increases anytime soon, “but don’t sweat it.” Like people in Japan, we are assured that we should just be happy for general stability and get used to a stagnant economy.
Fewer jobs, more college-grads who are unemployed or (underemployed) and living with their parents, more three-generation households, falling home values, rising costs of food and necessities—these are the new normal. “And it’s okay,” Washington assures us. “If things get really bad, there are more government programs than ever to help you make ends meet.”
Don’t worry, be happy.
Regulations or Solutions
“Don’t desire so much anymore,” we’re told. “Make do with less. Except when it comes to big government. We’ll give you more of that!”
But how does this message from today’s Washington jive with the reality? Truth: “An economy that grows at one percent doubles its average income approximately every 70 years, whereas an economy that grows at three percent doubles its average income about every 23 years—which, over time, makes a big difference in people’s lives.” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016, p. 42)
Factor inflation into these numbers—on the basics like food, housing, education, and transportation—and one percent growth means the average household falls further behind each and every month. At three to four percent growth, in contrast, like the overall average from 1945-2005 in the United States, families can improve their standard of living over time—and even help their kids do better than themselves.
Right now this level of growth is found mostly in Asia, certainly not in North America or Europe. Thus the increasing American realization that our children and grandchildren are likely to be worse off than we are, while their Chinese counterparts will probably experience upgraded lifestyles and standards of living in the decades ahead.
But this isn’t a static reality. It is based on the current policies and agendas of Washington. These can be changed. For starters, just adopt the suggestions Westerners often give to Russia, as outlined above:
- reduce/remove numerous government regulations that are killing small businesses and driving investment capital and high-growth corporations—and jobs—to other nations
- stop federal overspending in so many government agencies by simply cutting their budgets—significantly—to spark increased investment and business growth
Just these two changes would significantly reboot the U.S. economy.
Americans can become a more frugal and a resilient people once again, no doubt. But they would rather be a more innovative and entrepreneurial people—and they have proven that they are incredibly good at it—if government will just cut away the red tape and let free enterprise thrive again.
June 7th, 2016 // 10:12 am @ Sara DeMille
Guest Post by Ian Cox
Midlife Crisis of U.S. Politics?
More people are hearing about the “contested convention” that looks likely for the Republican Party. Even the Democratic race has seen a similar shake up: Sanders often takes the popular vote, but Clinton wins more delegates.
As Ezra Klein from vox.com put it:
“Americans believe their elections are far more democratic than they actually are, and that’s because the most undemocratic institutions—like super delegates and the Electoral College—tend to follow the popular will. But that’s because the popular will is usually clear and easy to follow.
“This is a year, in other words, when voters on both sides will be looking for reasons to doubt the results of their primaries. And they will find plenty of them.”
In a contested convention for the Republican Party most delegates will be able to vote however they would like. This will probably leave their constituents back at home a little upset if they don’t follow the popular vote. Maneuvering has already been taking place to get delegates who are sworn to one candidate by their State’s popular vote, but who would vote for another candidate in case of a contested convention.
Democrats have super delegates who aren’t tied to popular vote and can cast their vote wherever they see fit. They may “pledge” to one candidate during the primaries and this usually coincides with the popular vote of their state, but it doesn’t have to.
These are just two aspects of the labyrinth of a republican form of government. In other words, a government by delegation or by representation. Every state has its own method of voting for the president, as well as party rules, and how the state itself runs.
The question arises here, are we a government of delegation or a government of popular vote? It seems that the people think it’s popular vote—and get confused, annoyed, and angry when thwarted. But the party leaders and government are living by the rules of representation (granted, this is pretty much by default because they are required by law to abide by these rules).
The people are playing Baseball while the delegates are playing Football, and the rules of the two games don’t mix very well. In the overlap, we’re getting major chaos and only one side can prevail.
Before we continue, let’s take a few steps back and take a good look at these two forms of government.
Popular vs Delegate Societies
A pure democracy exists where the majority decides what happens. If 51% of the population wants free health care, then it passes a law and it’s the duty of the officials to make it happen. If 49% wish for slavery, they can’t pass as law because there is no majority.
Things move quickly, and usually vehemently, in a society ruled by solely popular vote. Even Aristotle categorized democracy as a bad form of government. Most of the founding fathers studied many different forms of government as they were putting together the Constitution of the United States. John Adams said:
“Democracy… while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
Think of the book Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, or The Scarlett Pimpernel by Emma Orczy, or any history book covering the French Revolution, and you’ll get the picture of what everyone was so worried about when it comes to democracies.
On the other hand, a republican form of government exists where the populace gets together and votes for delegates or representatives who then decide what laws to establish. Instead of the populace voting for everything, their representatives or delegates take the duty to maintain society through necessary law-making and executing those laws. A classic example of this is the Roman Republic or the Roman Senate.
Another great example of this is our modern Presidential election. Every four years we have a national election—which is partly done by popular vote and partly done by a delegated vote, depending on the state—and a great number of citizens rally around this great cause. Once it is over most people hibernate again until something exciting comes along, like the next presidential election.
If you’d like to know more of what the role of the average citizen should be during this “downtime,” dig into these two books Oliver DeMille wrote for this very purpose:
- Freedom Matters by Oliver DeMille
- The U.S. Constitution and the 196 Indispensable Principles of Freedom by Oliver DeMille
What Is Our Identity?
When the endgame is unknown it’s pretty much impossible to win. If I’m given a golf ball on a soccer field, and I’m told to make the loop, what am I supposed to do? What if I’m not given any instructions? Am I supposed to be on offense? Defense? Maybe play goalie. Is there even supposed to be a goalie? Am I allowed to block, where am I to focus to help score, do what I want a high score or a low score? Is there a scoreboard?!
Not knowing what you don’t know can be very frustrating, stressful, and leave you without any hope of making progress. We no longer seem to be a nation with a unifying identity. A similar thing happened in the 1770’s between the colonies and the British, again in the 1850’s-60’s with the Northern States and the Southern States, also during the 1940’s with bigger government deals as well as global community issues. We’re in another such period; over the next few years we will likely see society shift again in major ways.
Will it be a shift towards more opportunity, success, and freedom, or something worse?
What is the Coming Shift?
It might be too soon to tell, but this presidential race might just be an omen of the coming shift; a microcosm of what the future holds for the “United” States of America.
This disconnect and misunderstanding of how the elections actually work could be the perfect setting for a democratic revolt. The populace might demand, despite whatever laws, rules, and constitutional measures are in place, that government listen to the voice of the people. To do what the people vote for and right away. No more of this arguing, debating, and political maneuvering in Congress. Let’s get it done!
The checks, balances, and the democratic republican constitutional form of government we now see hanging by a thread could very well be severed and swing us heavily towards a government by the whims of men.
Now, because of the numbers, I know many who read this will still be asking: but why is this shift a bad thing? Isn’t it bringing us more freedom? Isn’t it getting the people what they have so long desired? No more ridiculous laws or government officials telling us what we can and cannot do; we will take the responsibility in our own hands!
If men were angels this would probably work out much better, but as history has shown again and again this is not the case. Remember the quote by John Adams earlier? Remember your French Revolution history? Logically we might “know” these things, but still! Look at what’s happening today in our society. The people are being held back as corruption in high places seeps further and further.
Who will win this fight? The corrupting upper crust of society, or the beaten down and squished populace?
Or is there a third option?
Think of it this way: when societies were ruled by the whims of the masses, the leaders that rose to the top were Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Nero, and the like. Historically these are the type of men, and women, who rise to the top and gain control.
On the flip side of this coin is the rule of the wealthy or privileged. Enter the Feudal Age and the ancient and modern systems of slavery. King Henry the VIII wasn’t elected or put on the throne by a revolution of discontented people, he was born into the position. He was at times just as bad for the people and to the people as the tyrants mentioned before. That’s because these monarchs or oligarchies still rule by the whims of men.
What our Founders did differently—as did every other truly free people in the history of the world—was study freedom deeply, and then build organizations or communities that solved the issues of their time. In other words, they took responsibility to get things done themselves, and they developed their leadership to make sure their ventures and communities would succeed.
Let’s Pay the Price
What every free people in the history of the world did different was set up checks and balances, forms and processes, and auxiliary precautions to guard against these destructive tyrants, both of the general people as well as the individual tyrant and everything between. It’s safer in the long run to establish laws, rules, and forms that are no respecters of persons. This has been the formula for establishing freedom for generations.
This means the rules of the game must be understood and upheld by the masses. If the average citizen doesn’t, then we’ll quickly learn to vote for any and every benefit we can. Or we’ll have the threat of having our representatives and upper crust of society take power and rule with an iron fist—squashing the general populace.
I’m not saying the current forms and systems are perfect, but we should understand why they were established in the first place. If we throw off the bonds that make us free we will quickly spiral into an era of major losses of freedom and opportunity for generations to come.
Let’s pay the price of understanding the rules of the game to maintain freedom.
 “This presidential campaign is developing a legitimacy problem,” by Ezra Klein Vox.com, April 19, 2016
May 25th, 2016 // 6:12 am @ Oliver DeMille
Parties, Issues, and Funds
Mitt Romney was right about a number of things. One of the most important, even though it got him trouble with some voters, is that a solid 47% of the nation is against the Republican candidate for president (whoever he or she is), simply because a large group depends on government programs to financially make ends meet. In fact, the number appears to be increasing.
According to one report, “Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency.” The same article notes that “47 percent…would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all.” (“My Secret Shame,” The Atlantic, May 2016)
Indeed, in 2014 only 38 percent of Americans thought they could come up with the money for a $500 car repair. (Ibid.) In other words, the number 47 percent (who needed government help to survive in 2012) may now be closer to 62 percent.
High and Low
This is a challenging dilemma. On the one hand, those with a sense of needing more government support and programs to make ends meet are a lot more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders than for any Republican. As the electorate becomes more financially strapped, it tends to swing to candidates promising more government help.
On the other hand, it is the liberal (Bill Clinton/Barack Obama) and moderate (Bush I/Bush II) policies—growth of government intrusion in the economy and poorly-constructed education, health care, banking and other programs—that have brought our economy to this point. As more people vote for bigger government, the government naturally grows and the economy further stalls. It’s a self-fulfilling negative cycle.
In a truly free enterprise economy, entrepreneurship would create a lot more jobs and prosperity. It brings approximately 80% of new jobs in the United States—but the sheer mountain of red tape a business start-up now faces (based mostly on the policies of the four presidents just mentioned, and more from Obama than the others), has significantly gummed up the economy. Obamacare is making it even worse, with the most damaging (job-killing) parts of the Affordable Health Care Act still slated to go into effect in 2017.
Between 2003 and 2013 the median net worth of Americans dropped an amazing 38%. (Ibid.) And it’s still going down.
In short: Big government isn’t helping—it’s adding to the problem.
Beginnings or Endings
Remember the 2012 presidential debates where Romney suggested that Russia is a major strategic threat to the United States and Obama scoffed and lectured Mitt about not knowing what he was talking about? Three years later, guess what? Russia a major strategic threat. (See Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016: “Putin Returns to the Historical Pattern,” “The Revival of the Russian Military,” “The Quest to Restore Russia’s Rightful Place,” “Why Putin Took Crimea.”)
The same is true in economics. Bigger government, thousands of additional business- and job-stifling regulations on the books, and more red tape, don’t help the economy. They hurt it.
And a majority of Americans are now feeling the effects. Fifty-five percent of households don’t have enough savings to make it for even one month. (Op Cit., The Atlantic) If the middle twenty percent of households, the true middle class in America, lost their income right now, they could, on average, continue their current lifestyle for just six days. (Ibid.) That’s six days!
The sudden 2016 “defaults on subprime auto loans indicate that the American willingness to just keep buying…can’t lift us out of this [economic] pickle…. The general default rate for all subprime auto loans jumped from 11.3 to 12.3 percent in just a month—exactly the kind of ‘can’t pay my bills’ phenomenon that triggered the  housing collapse.” (“The Portfolio,” Esquire, May 2016)
Recently announced: Sports Authority is filing chapter 11 bankruptcy, Staples is closing 50 stores, Fairway is near default, American Apparel filed for bankruptcy, and even Walmart is closing 154 stores. (Ibid.) The list of other companies on the brink or downsizing and cutting jobs is long.
The economy is sputtering.
All this in the midst of a presidential election year. I don’t know what Donald Trump will or won’t do in the Oval Office (whether he’ll be just another politician or really lead out and reboot the economy). But one thing is very clear: If Senator Clinton is our next president, the number of Americans who require government support to make ends meet by the year 2020 probably won’t be 47 percent, or even 62 percent, anymore.
It will be a lot higher.
May 19th, 2016 // 8:19 am @ Oliver DeMille
We need to start.
First, it is clear to almost everyone that the Drone Revolution has drastically changed the world—probably in ways that we can’t really undo. Whatever other functions they’ll eventually fulfill, drones are the ultimate war machine. They can be programmed to do things unimagined in earlier wars, like search out specific people from certain races, religions, viewpoints, business or educational backgrounds, etc.
They can be programmed to target a specific person. And all his/her friends. Everyone he/she loves. Those who agree with him/her on political issues. Governments can use drones on their own people, as well as in battle.
Very few people are taking this very seriously. On the one hand, it’s so potentially monstrous that we don’t like to think about it. Imagine drone technology in the hands of a Stalin, a Hitler, a Nero, Caligula or Mao, Saddam Hussein or an ISIS sympathizer in your neighborhood. If history has taught us anything, it’s that bad guys do sometimes rise to great power.
It will happen again, and drone tech combined with computing power is a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, if we did want to stop it, what would we do? Most people believe it’s a fait accompli. No chance of turning it around. They’re probably right.
Second, the Crowdsourcing Revolution isn’t over—it’s just beginning. It has largely put the newspaper industry on the ropes, and the book industry is also now under the gun as Amazon grows. In fact, many brick and mortar malls are increasingly empty as Internet sales on many types of products and services soar. Education at all levels is facing serious competition from free online learning sources, and big swaths of the health care sector are being crowdsourced as well.
The good side of crowdsourcing makes a lot of things less expensive, easier to find, and quicker to obtain (or learn). The downside is that the large companies that control the data have algorithms that can influence us in ways we never imagined. For example, a man texts his wife to find out where a certain kind of cereal is in the pantry, and within minutes his smartphone chimes and offers him a coupon for the same cereal—from the supermarket closest to his home. Or if he texted from the office, it lists the grocery store nearest to his work.
This kind of data-mine-marketing is becoming a commonplace experience for those who use certain apps, and while it might feel a bit creepy at first, over time people get used to it—and even grow to expect it. Very Minority Report. How much governments and private organizations are using this kind of tech is unclear, but it’s growing. Add personal location tracking technology to the mix, and we really are living in a surveillance state.
Third, there’s a new buzzword floating around in economic circles: “Crowd-Based Capitalism.” The idea is that in the emerging 21st Century economy we’re evolving a whole new economic model. Not socialism. Not capitalism. Certainly not free enterprise. A new approach. As one book from MIT put it, we’re moving into a “Sharing Economy,” where “the end of employment” is being replaced with “the rise of crowd-based capitalism.”
The idea that employment as we’ve known it for the last six decades is increasingly outdated. For example, in the May 2016 issue of The Atlantic an article showed how one couple used up their entire life and retirement savings—and the entire life savings of the husband’s elderly parents—to put their two daughters through college. The idea of college training being essential is now being taken to incredible levels: The savings of two couples wiped out, just so their offspring could graduate with a degree—in an economy that doesn’t value degrees like it used to. (See “My Secret Shame,” The Atlantic, May 2016)
A truly new economy is emerging, but most people haven’t realized it yet. They’re still caught in the old—and paying for it in tragic ways.
Another example: When 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz said the following, “The less government, the more freedom. The fewer bureaucrats, the more prosperity. And there are bureaucrats in Washington right now who are killing jobs…”, the response was immediate. Two professors, one from Yale and the other from Berkeley, replied that the opposite is true: The bigger the government, the more freedom, and the bigger the bureaucracy, the more prosperity. (“Making America Great Again,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016)
A lot of people actually believe them.
But reality is still reality. Crowd-based capitalism means more government, and this isn’t the path to a great economy. The thing that is actually rising to replace the 1945-2008 era of employment it is a reboot of entrepreneurship and small business ventures.
The new economy can go in one of two directions:
- Government reduces the amount of anti-business and job-stifling regulations, and spurs a major entrepreneurial boom. This will create a lot more jobs, opportunities, and incentives for increased global investment in the U.S. economy.
- Government keeps increasing business-stifling regulations and takes the profits from businesses (big and small) to create a “sharing economy.” This will create a much higher rate of dependency on government welfare and state programs, reduce the number of people fully employed (making enough to live in the middle or upper class), and drive investment to other nations.
How the so-called “sharing economy” differs from socialism is actually academic. Yes, on paper it has a somewhat different structure than Marxian socialism. But for the regular people it’s going to feel pretty much the same. A few wealthy and powerful elites at the top, a small middle class of managers and professionals who work mostly for the elites, and a burgeoning underclass living largely off government programs.
Two books* on this topic are: (1) The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism by Arun Sundrarajan, and (2) Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert Reich.
For the other side of the argument—why freedom and free enterprise are the real answer—see my latest book, entitled Freedom Matters.
Middle America is still experiencing a serious economic struggle. Things are getting worse, not better. As one report on the heartland put it: “On every sign, in every window, read the vague and anxious urgings…Remember the Unborn; …Don’t Text; Don’t Litter; Buy My Tomatoes (Local!); Let Us Filter Your Water; We Can Help With Your Bankruptcy. Then bigger gas stations sprawled on crossroad corners, unoccupied storefronts…another consignment store.” (“The Country Will Bring Us No Peace,” Esquire, May 2016)
As an ad for Shinola products reminds us: “There’s a funny thing that happens when you build factories in this country. It’s called jobs.” We haven’t seen very many factories built here for a long time. Crowd-based capitalism isn’t a solution.
Together, these three changes in our world are a very big deal:
- The Drone Revolution
- The Crowd-Sourcing Revolution
- The Post-Employment Economy
If you have more ideas on these important developments, share them. If not, learn more about them.
The future can be determined by a few elites who think about such things, or by all of us. The more regular people engage such important topics, the more influence we’re likely to have.
The truth is, we’ve forgotten Watergate and Kent State. (See “The Cold Open,” Esquire, May 2016) We’ve forgotten Nixon and that the 2000 presidential election was decided by the intervention of the Supreme Court. (Ibid.) We’ve forgotten a lot of things.
As one report put it: “We’ve forgotten how easily we can be lied to.” (Ibid.) If we let them, Washington and the media will just tell us what the elites want us to know—and think.
April 25th, 2016 // 5:40 am @ Oliver DeMille
Then and Now
Over a century ago the British historian James Bryce travelled the United States to discover what had changed since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America. One of the most interesting topics he wrote about was, “Why Great Men Aren’t Elected President in the United States.” (James Bryce, The American Commonwealth.)
Bryce noted that during the founding era, the greatest men in the nation rose to the presidency—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, etc. But as time passed, this tradition changed. (see ibid.)
“Why?” Bryce wondered. His answer is instructive today: the greatest leaders in the nation don’t even try to become president. (Ibid.) They don’t want the job. It is true that Washington didn’t seek the position, but after John Quincy Adams—with the exception of Lincoln—the greatest leaders actively shied away.
At the time Bryce described this phenomenon, it could be explained by showing that the presidency wasn’t the real seat of power. (Ibid.) This reality dominated for a long time after Bryce, in fact. Congress wielded great influence during the long progressive era (from 1890 to 1970), and the Court increased its power as well—a major frustration for Wilson and FDR. William Howard Taft, for example, who served in Congress, as president, and on the Court, had less influence in the White House than the other positions.
In the post World War II era, however, the executive branch greatly increased its power—both literally (with huge additional powers in foreign relations and budgetary influence) and relatively (largely because Congress stopped effectively or frequently using the purse strings as a serious check or balance). If lack of power is the reason the greatest leaders didn’t aim for the Oval Office a century ago, what is the reason now? The power of the presidency is immense. It is often referred to—and seen by the populace—as the most powerful job in the world.
Why don’t the very best leaders want it? Is it because the party system has become so strident that anyone elected will spend as much or more time fighting partisan battles and attacks as governing? Is it because the perks of the office are so much less than the soaring benefits of corporate or business leadership? Is it because the headaches and problems are worse than other fields of leadership? Is it because the election process itself has become such a torturous ordeal? Or is there some other reason?
At this point I intended to list the names of a number of excellent leaders—from different walks of life and from both sides of the political aisle—who might put the current crop of candidates to shame in terms of leadership. But as I made the list it became clear that in the current political climate all of these men and women would quickly be turned into caricatures by the party system and the media. Just picturing them in politics somehow changes how we see them.
This is a central part of the problem. Here’s what I think it means: The system has become bigger than a candidate can ever hope to be. The job is simply so big (because the federal government is doing so many things never intended by the Constitution) that it has become…too big. It is too much for any one man or woman. The leaders with the most acumen and wisdom know this.
Those who don’t realize that this is the situation aren’t the best leaders because they don’t even understand the reality, and those who realize it but–want the job anyway–may not have the purest of intentions, in some cases. If Washington were pruned back to its literal Constitutional authority, the job would once again become manageable. But just like Washington is out of control, the position of president isn’t structurally up to the task.
The media has attempted to cope with this reality in two major ways: with humor or tragedy. Shakespeare took the same approach in dealing with European monarchies that had also become too big for one person—trying to run the executive, legislative, judicial, national and local all at once. His plots pit the character—man or woman—against the impossibility of the role. The result is either comedy or tragedy.
Icons and Candidates
In America, we tend toward tragedy. As Christopher Orr has pointed out (The Atlantic, March 2015, 56-59), America’s modern image of what our president should be was largely created by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: A noble hero taking on a corrupt system. Though Stewart’s character was a Senator, the icon has been repeated in many popular American movies, television dramas, and books about the executive branch (e.g. Dave, The American President, West Wing, Air Force One, The Candidate, The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Madam Secretary, etc.).
These “tragedies” are more hopeful than their British counterparts, but the noble heroes never do truly change the system. They fight a noble fight, but the system ultimately prevails. Other recent American comedies or dramas about Washington (e.g. Veep, Scandal, House of Cards, State of Affairs, The Bourne Ultimatum, Political Animals, etc.) portray less-than-noble leaders who are simply part of the broken system. (see ibid.)
In contrast, Orr notes that many British portrayals of their prime minister emphasize humor or, in the case of the British version of House of Cards, the opposite of the American model: a prime minister who is truly conniving and dishonest working his schemes and plots in a government made up of basically well-meaning people (ibid., 57). But in America, “the one honest man” motif still dominates (ibid., 58).
In the real world, this icon has become part of the 2016 election in both major parties. Ted Cruz frequently invokes “the Washington Cartel” as the corrupt system and pits himself as the lone voice fighting its many nefarious agendas, while Bernie Sanders attacks the establishment as the great roadblock to American progress and happiness. Both promise to change Washington in drastic ways.
Donald Trump makes the same case, albeit in very different words: to make America great again, a true outsider with proven big business leadership is needed (because only such a background prepares one to manage the behemoth of a job, to fully understand the global economy and to lead the kind of “non-politician” projects and negotiations that will reboot our economy for real). A number of candidates have made similar outsider arguments (the noble hero rides Quixote-like to reform Washington), from Ben Carson and Rand Paul to Carly Fiorina and John Kasich.
Only Hillary Clinton isn’t closely aligned with this theme. Her message (which seems to vacillate between “it’s my turn” and “vote for experience”) is the opposite of “the one honest woman” icon. As a number of political experts have pointed out, Americans don’t tend to elect two consecutive presidents from the same party. When they do (i.e. Bush I, Johnson, Truman) it typically occurs after an exceptionally popular president (Reagan, Kennedy, FDR).
The New World?
Is Obama such a president? And can Secretary Clinton capture the nation’s attention and support? Such questions remain to be answered. But the biggest question of all—for America and the world—also remains to be seen. Will the next president turn out to be a great leader?
In a world with incredibly high-stakes challenges (including big power conflict between the U.S., China, Russia, Europe, etc.; the chaotic rise of new powers in the world including Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, North Korea, Iran, and a half dozen others; getting a real solution for terrorism—just to name three), this is a serious issue indeed. And effectively rebooting our flagging economy is enough of a challenge for any leader ahead, and drastically needed.
But what if James Bryce is still right and in 2016, despite the serious need for real change, we don’t elect a great leader…?
Not a happy thought. As the primary season continues, the election itself is becoming an increasing anxiety for many Americans. A hard truth is presenting itself: It may just be that Washington isn’t going to have the answers after the next election, and that its dysfunction will actually increase. If that happens, the people of United States are going to need to find another way to fix things.