In America, Politics as Self-Renewal

WASHINGTON – The paradox of American politics is this odd mixture between pragmatism and grandiose wishful thinking. Hillary Clinton studied for president for decades. She keeps reminding her audiences about all her accomplishments; or at least sophisticated knowledge about the issues that touch Americans today.

Then, out of nowhere, comes about a new entity, a new type of politicians who says: “What you know does not mean much; unless you create a new system that engages people to work together for a shared and just solution”.

Well, this changes the framework of the conversation. Clinton says: “I really know the issues”. Obama says: “Knowing the issues may be a good thing. But if you cannot create the new environment that invites genuine cooperation, we will not be able to make much progress”.

And here we are. Clinton keeps insisting on her field-earned qualifications. Beyond that, she is a woman. The really first, fully qualified female who can be a credible president. But this is not enough. Obama, also a first, as the first African American with a real shot at the highest national political office, keeps saying that he “has” the magic formula that will transform wishful thinking into tangible reality for the many, especially the many who feel taken for granted and routinely left out.

Obama’s message has had and has a tremendous echo. I have written already about the dangers of politics as some kind of spiritual re-invention. Yet, the fact that a man who is different, so different, in his “being”, in as much as his being is the personification of what can happen when black and white ethnic elements are mixed, can create so much good will is quite interesting. Who are Obama’s most enthusiastic followers? The young. Those who are generally not in the political process, as they find it –in its current status– reflexively dull and untrue.

Whatever can be said about Obama’s appeal, whereby “his” pronunciation of a yearning for “change” sounds true, probably because he believes in it, this appeal is in large part the reflection of a yearning for a quasi-religious sense of commitment to something “higher” in this land of New Things.

Let us remember that this Republic, at least in terms of a collective Dream that has been passed on to us, is an experiment about the possibilities of human ingenuity combined with industry. Obama’s reminder that, unless we change our ways, not much will be transformed in policies, has had a tremendously strong echo. What is most strange is that, beyond his own personal stated commitment to make this happen, we are all entirely clueless as to the means that he will/can adopt to get us into the New Promised Land of virtuous cooperation. But an (apparently) sincere desire to radically transform a system of half truths and institutionalized trench warfare, dominated by localized self-interests; a system in which it is a lot easier to stop something then to make it happen, seems to be enough for millions who have clustered around Barak Obama, this new biracial symbol of America’s perpetual self-regeneration.

Of course, descending into the boring practical world, the trick would be in really knowing how to marry in some meaningful fashion the lofty goals of self-renewal with the practical tools of government that we have available. But this is never discussed in any detail.

Despite that, even taking for granted Obama’s truthfulness and goals, how is he going to accomplish the goal-dream so much wanted by millions who would like to look at politics as the decent way to create fairness, openness and opportunity for most, in an equitable and bias-free fashion? While I do not know for sure, I guess that many would want America to be true to its slogan: “Real opportunity for all those who are willing to work hard, within a fair system that has no racial or class favorites, to achieve whatever they want to”.

This is the dream like vision of the non partisan intellectuals of the XVIII Century who really wanted a world free of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. A world in which the enthusiastic pursuit of education would be the guiding force towards higher achievements. Education was thus pushed forward by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. And education, in their worldview at least, was not partisan. It was about creating on Earth “The Age of Light”.

So, back to the present; why Barak Obama? Because, in the current landscape, he is focusing on a different perspective. A message of Unity, even though he does not say how this Unity will come about, within the present institutional and political framework. We need Unity, says the Man who –at least symbolically– unites in his person two races in conflict. We should build bridges with all and focus on the way we pursue goals, as opposed to the goals themselves. If the way we pursue our goals is partisan and belligerent, well, we may be losing something important, so important as to devalue any meaning from whatever accomplishment.

Sure, if we dream a moment, let us think of someone who can indeed be trusted to be sincere, moved by a desire to promote the common good, as opposed to some special interest, would it not be wonderful to select this person as our steady leader? Yes, of course it would be.

But here, forgive me, we go back to the need to examine a fundamental premise: what is it that makes a republic a viable republic? Obama tells us what we are not, what we are lacking. Fine. And he is probably right. However, a successful modern republic is not about every now and then a great disinterested leader coming about. It is really about the premise of maturity of most citizens (and not just of One Leader) and their ability to engage in meaningful dialogue aimed at solving issues. If we need a Savior who will –who knows how really—help us out of the swamps in which we got ourselves because we do not have the rooted maturity upon which a modern republic is predicated, then the issue is not about Him; however sincere his argument; but, once again, about  us. If we cannot have a meaningful, mature polity constituted of reasonably mature people, then, as last reort, we need Obama, or, in the future, another Obama-like character who will come about to remind us of how low we have fallen.

But the hard solution, the really hard solution, is not in selecting Him as our Savior; but in understanding that the complicated issue is in how we should grow out of this nasty predicament created by our immature understanding of politics. A well functioning political process should be predicated on attained maturity on the part of the participants. Maturity, in turn, should give us a mature discussion as to how, collectively, we can advance the best type of common good for ourselves and the world we live in. If politics is about the advancement of a particular ideology that needs to see its political triumph, well, we have re-created another Monster. Little Monster, Big Monster, depending on the circumstances. 

However, Obama’s song “about new ways”and the surprisingly wide national echo it has created, should not be lost, as it tells us a lot of where we are. He is telling us that, no matter how smart some of us are, the issue is about more “mature attitudes” towards the policy process. The instinctive exceptional echo that his call to seriousness in our hearts has created is an important sign as to the need for reformulating the basic fundamentals of what is needed to advance the policy process.

Unfortunately, the issue is that, in a few months, after all this primary avalanche will be done and over with, the canary song –the Obama phenomenon– that tells us that there is gas in the mine shaft may be lost and easily forgotten.

Obama’s echo among the young, the instinctive outpouring of sympathy, and the cascade of millions towards this (apparently) different man trying to articulate a new way of looking at the political process, should tell us a great deal as to where the work should take place. In a sense, he appears to be what most people would like to see among elected leaders. Vision, passion, poise, good will, without the devilish element of ideological bias.

(Of course, Hillary Clinton, his opponent in this primary season has desperately tried to affirm that Obama is all appearance and no substance. Nice but empty speeches. The words may resonate; but there is no articulation of a political strategy and of believable policies to take care of actual issues. Not to mention that the man has no real experience. So Hillary Clinton appeals more to middle aged “practical” women. But Obama is the candidate of the young and of the intellectually sophisticated who collectively have thrown an avalanche of money into his campaign coffers, while he is appealing to the independent who may think that they may have finally found their champion,as Obama speaks a “different” language.)

What do I take from this Obama phenomenon? it indicates a real yearning; but it cannot possibly provide the solution to the problems that he points out. The “solution” to the collective soul searching that would like to find a magic cure by electing a “different” leader is escapism.

The real “solution”? Educate young people. Teach them about the ideologically free values of republican ideas; focused on: broadening opportunity as much as possible; and allowing people to take their rightful place within an unbiased society in which birth is not destiny. It is difficult, of course for most of us to realize that only by adopting these values and “ground rules” we can be the more co-operative citizens Obama talks about. Very difficult. But true.

Unfortunately, as always, we are rushing. We are rushing fast to determine who is going to be the nominee for the Democrats. Difficult to pause and reflect on the peculiar call for something radically “different” coming from around the nation triggered by the Obama phenomenon.

And what is the call about? The desire for declaring that we are now in a a post-racial America in which all ethnic issues have been resolved. The very fact that millions of whites do not have any problems in having faith in this biracial Man should tell us a great deal as to what unbiased human beings may be able to do. However, while noting all this, the problem is that we do not know anything about the depth of these feelings. Are they just fantasies or deeply thought through convictions? And when “Obama the Uniter” will call upon the many to work on behalf of the worse off what will the response be?

America Longing for Moses

WASHINGTON – Whatever the eventual outcome of the democratic party primaries, we have a Barack Obama phenomenon that is more then just a momentary blip. Whether he will eventually prevail or not against Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama’s staying power, in fact growing profile, in terms of widespread support across races and age groups and his ability to attract massive financial contributions to his campaign demonstrates that, yet again, at least a sizable portion of the American electorate is transfixed by the idea that a “New Type of Leader” will get us on “The Right Path”.

This large segment of the electorate seems to conceive the political process as an exercise in spiritual self-renewal, as opposed to a process aimed at selecting a competent chief executive. What is held against Obama by the traditionalists –lack of experience—is indeed a virtue for his supporters. He is not tainted by the process. Barack Obama is new; indeed extra new. A junior Senator from Illinois with a negligible political record (at least compared to many more seasoned politicians). He is different not for what he is (who knows really…) but for what he seems to symbolize.

Among other things there is an assumption regarding his purported ability to make us finally heal and thus transcend the race issue through his very physical being as a biracial man. All this is mixed with an ideal blend of youthful vigor and principled, ecumenical idealism, finally pasteurized by an enlightened and wise pragmatism of post-partisan politics. “The Man with two Races” represents himself as the Uniter. The One who can lift us beyond petty politics by disclosing a “Vision” that sets all of us onto a “Higher Purpose”.

We have serious problems –he tells us– and we should confront them with the appropriate gravitas blended, though, with the “can-doism” of a reawakened American Pragmatism. And here we go again. We really want to listen to someone who tells us that if we only put our minds to it, the sky is the limit. We are Americans. United behind a Genuine Leader who will tirelessly exhort us to be the best that we can be –the New Coach of Team America– we shall regain our sense of purpose and be once again an unstoppable force for good.

Back in 1995 we had another African American whom we flirted with: General Colin Powell. After Powell had retired from being the first soldier, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, there was intense speculation that he would run for president. So, we were told by U.S. News & World Report ,(Cover story August 21, 1995), that Colin Powell is “The Man to Watch”. But what did Powell have that made him so attractive?

He was an ex soldier with no recognizable political base or clear political program. Well, that was precisely the point. He was unknown and thus he could make us dream whatever we wanted to dream. This deep fascination with the “good outsider”, now renewed through the Barack Obama phenomenon, reveals a great deal as to what many Americans unconsciously expect from a president.

At least for some Americans, and the young first and foremost, the qualities desired in a elected public officer are not primarily intelligence, common sense and steadfast pursuit of a goal until it is accomplished.

No. We want “Leadership”, “Vision”. We may not say it openly, yet we are usually bored when we hear from a would be president about what his administration will do about energy, taxes or infrastructure spending. We want to sit, riveted in front of the TV, transfixed by the eloquence of a Man who introduces us to His Vision. We want to hear stirring rhetoric about our “Unique Destiny” as Americans; our Nation’s “Bright Future”.

This, of course, does not mean that we like to give unchecked, dictatorial powers to the presidents. No Mussolini, Hitler or Peron for America.

Yet, we want to be seduced. We want to be inspired. Deep in our hearts we want a Prophet in the White House. We want a man whose vision surpasses all others, a man who will touch our spirits, a man who will energize us to accomplish great deeds.

The attention given to General Colin Powell months after his retirement was based on the fact that we could believe that he had these qualities, while Bill Clinton, the incumbent president at the time, did not seem to.

Of course nowadays Bill Clinton has been reconstructed as the inspired good president who gave us peace and the roaring ‘90s. But, at the time, he did not appear so inspiring. The crushing defeat of his party in the Congressional lections of 1994 attested to that. Deep in our hearts, in the elections of 1992, we wanted a champion; and instead we got a policy wonk of questionable moral character. Bill Clinton extolled the merit of “Reinventing Government”. He pushed government-business alliances to produce a new generation of cars. He wanted a comprehensive health reform but in the end he could not explain it. For a time, he forced many journalists to understand and explain to a confused public what a “BTU” (British Thermal Unit) is.

But he had not defined for us a “Heroic Journey”, a “Manifest Destiny”. There was no “New Deal” to be struck. No “New Frontier” ahead of us. No “Great Society” to be built.

Further, at the time there did not seem to be real dragons to slay across the Oceans. America was the Superpower, but we could not congratulate ourselves anymore for being the “Leader of the Free World”. The few attempts aimed at defining something new in foreign policy, such as humanitarian intervention in Bosnia, democracy building in Somalia or drawing the line on human rights in China excited very few people.

While we contemplated unenthusiastically the political horizons, fate had it that a new suitor with all the right credentials seemed to be coming along. Powell had all the qualities to become the object of our next infatuation. He had an impeccable resume. He was (is) a self-made American, a product of the military meritocracy which tempered his character. He led the military during the Gulf War. A black man universally respected by whites. Serious, witty and humble. Even better, he was politically untested. He never held elected office, so he has no record to defend or to distance himself from.

Hence the flurry of speculation. What was Powell going to do? Would he really be running for president in 1996? Was he a Democrat or a Republican ? As a General turned politician, was he going to be more like an Eisenhower or a Washington; a Jackson or a Grant ?

But the real (even though not fully articulated) question was: “Is this self-assured, competent soldier the hero who will lead this disoriented tribe away from the swamps of uncertainty and doubt and into the Promised Land of Prosperity and Security?”. Will a president Powell succeed in the task where all the other false prophets (President Bill Clinton included) failed us? Will he finally “fix” America for us?

While the context and the cast of characters have changed somewhat since the 1990s, the dynamics and the emotional drivers behind the Barak Obama phenomenon are pretty much the same. So, the hope of his many supporters is that Obama, with his exotic resume, his gravitas, his beautiful voice, seriousness and appeal to our moral principles will fix America for us. Unfortunately this is not just the proverbial wrong issue. The fact that an issue can be framed in these terms in the context of an election in a modern democracy reveals profound misgivings on the part of the public, as well as the opinion leaders who fuel these debates, on what the political process in a democracy should be about.

Would Colin Powell have made a good president? Of course, we’ll never know that. He snuffed the dream by taking himself out of the picture. But, had he decided to stay in and become president he probably would not have been worse than average.

As for Obama……who knows? Maybe what he lacks in experience he can make up with good instincts. But the real problem which reveals a profound misgiving about the nature of the political process is that the enthusiasm for his candidacy does not reside on the political plane. It resides on a semi-transcendental plane. It has to do with Faith and Belief rather than with the mundane bricks and mortar of the public policy pitfalls that should consist in the wise allocation of limited resources. Obama is not about policies; but about our need to be inspired by “Leadership-and-Vision, Moral-Character-and-Conviction-of-One-Man”.

But if this is the reason for the appeal of an individual who is running to be the head of what, after all, we call an “administration”, then we have a misunderstanding about the role of the political process in a democracy.

Let us make this clear: Nobody, nobody can “fix” America relying on his own inspirational abilities. Most of all, nobody will be able to fix it within the four years of a presidential mandate (or even within eight years –should he be reelected). America’s problems, like those of any complex, modern society, are systemic and as such they can be seriously addressed only over a long period of time.

“So what –one might say– even if we need long term solutions, let’s put someone in charge who will put us on the right track to begin with. That surely beats doing nothing or having another half-witted character in the Oval Office”.

Here is another fallacy. A president may identify problems and even suggest the right cures; but he cannot transform the soul of a nation. Not even if he is another Ronald Reagan-style “Great Communicator”, a politician who can rally diverse constituencies behind controversial programs. And the obstacles on the way to the implementation of Grand Designs, (taking for granted that sensible policies are indeed contained in them) are neither “congressional gridlock” nor the entrenched “interest groups”, nor the “bureaucracy” –and not even outside dangers such as Al Qaeda, or emerging rivals such as China.

The obstacle is us. All this yearning for inspirational leadership indicates that we have forgotten that an effective democratic government is premised not on the extraordinary qualities of a few; but on the deep and reasoned understanding of our condition and our real (as opposed to imaginary) choices on the part of the many. Further, democracy can function well only if the many do understand what can be addressed by us collectively, through the political process; and what has to be addressed instead by the people, individually, or in association with one another, on their own. Put it differently, the vaunted concept of the “Bully Pulpit” –the opportunity of a principled president to literally force the country on the way of wisdom, is a myth. At times it is a dangerous myth; as it creates expectations of a renewal engineered from above that routinely go unfulfilled. In an ideal republic, Good Government is the product of a healthy society. It is not the result of choosing the Superior Man as President.

Those individuals whom we reverently call our Founding Fathers grappled from the very beginning of the Republic with these issues. They found no final answers; but they certainly agreed that a democratic form of government requires a great deal of reason on the part of the people who make up the Republic. Indeed, democracy is premised on abundant reason. And reason, here, is to be understood as a clear sense of individual responsibility and self-reliance accompanied by a shared sense of justice and human decency that will prevent prevarication and abuses at the expenses of few or many. It also means a pragmatic understanding of what it takes to get something meaningful done in terms of time, effort and money.

But the record shows that, at least when we consider the highest elective office in the nation, many of us use little or no reason as the criteria to assess potential candidates. We crave someone “who will put things in order”. This person must look and sound persuasive. He must look good on TV. His positions on the issues are far less important than his rhetoric. He does not have to be right. He just has to sound right. Mesmerizing speech is far more important than content.

This state of affairs indicates a peculiar dichotomy in the American Collective Psyche.

On the one hand, we have a tradition that looks at government in a skeptical and somewhat suspicious way. And thus we sing the praise of a system of checks and balances which was designed to prevent any individual, faction or interest to entirely dominate the system. Indeed, as James Madison wisely put it long ago, men are not angels. So we must have a system of government which will create some healthy protection, a hedge against the power-hungry, the silly or the incompetents who are bound to be among our political leaders. Thus, a simple idea: do not give too much power to anybody. In fact, create a healthy competition among the key institutions of the Republic.

Make sure that no sweeping plan will be adopted too quickly. Let the Congress be in the way of the president, let the Courts check on the laws, let the president veto imprudent legislation, and so on and so forth. The marvelous result of a rather weak government will be that the citizens will not be hindered in their own private pursuits for whose protection, (remember the Declaration?), governments were created.

On the other hand, to this commonsensical, realistic, pragmatic approach enshrined in our Constitution, we juxtapose a romanticized view of government. We look at politicians –and presidents in particular– not just as chief executives, as the heads of what is still called, (after all) an “administration” but as the equivalent of Biblical leaders. Deep down, we do not want an “administrator” in the White House. Deep down we are on the lookout for a Moses who will lead us from the wilderness of confusion (economic, social, national, international, ecological –you name it) into the Promised land of Self- Assurance, Hope and Prosperity.

So, we are really torn between two opposite ideas about the political process. We have the world of the harsh everyday reality that makes us suspicious of any politician and skeptical about any and all of their claims. And then we have another world in which we invite politicians to tell us that they will fix everything. We want them to tell us that, if only we will vote them into office, nothing less than the Full Restoration of the American Dream will be bestowed upon us alongside with Justice and Dignity for All.

Is there a way out of this confusion? Of course there is: but it is complicated, as it summons our personal sense of responsibility. We need to rediscover what we have forgotten. We need to learn again that the premise for a successful democratic government consists in an informed, politically and policy literate citizenry which understands issues and can formulate reasonable opinions about them. Such a literate populace will tend to choose from within its midst elected leaders who will be (hopefully in most cases) at least not below average in their understanding of the needs for the common good.

This rather mundane truth is the simple secret of successful democratic government. Success lies in the nurturing of civic virtues and at least basic knowledge about issues on the parts of the citizens. The same citizens will also understand that it is impossible to ask government to fix problems –such as drug addiction and crime– which are deeply embedded in stratified bad personal habits for thousands and thousands of people. No doubt, well conceived public policy measures can help, but only if the rest of society agrees and changes its behavior.

But we do not want to bother with this simple yet harsh reality. A reality which summons our sense of personal responsibility. And we harbor instead a dream. We want to believe that somewhere, somehow there is a “Moses in waiting”. Just let him come along and He will sort out the mess.

The fact that a sizable percentage of Americans is prone to believe in these simplifications explains our infatuations. The Barak Obama phenomenon is largely a manifestation of this wishful thinking. While at the local and state level our political process is about the representation and the protection of vested interests, (taxes, zoning, infrastructures, basic services), at the national level it is a sequel of love affairs and disappointments with various politicians who carried “messages” that had very little to do with public administration.

How could all this happen in our Republic? Difficult to say. But, for sure, overtime we have lost the original sense of democratic government. Overtime we turned significant moments of our democratic life (such as party conventions) into rituals (at time solemn, at times ridiculous), which seem to celebrate extraordinary people. We seem to have forgotten that democracies can thrive only when everybody –governors and governed alike– display more virtues than vices.

Furthermore, probably unconsciously, we created physical symbols that seem to corroborate our distorted views. The Founding Fathers met on several historic occasions in a Hall in Philadelphia that is anything but grand. But we, the posterity, in order to celebrate them, have built shrines. Just go around the city of Washington and you will see not just monuments erected to eminent and worthy Americans. You will see Temples honoring Demigods whose lives and deeds are wrapped in the mist of legend. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln are not represented as men –however eminent. They are Heroes, Visionaries, Saviors. They are our “American Holy Trinity”. God the Father (Washington), God the Son (Lincoln, both Savior and Martyr) and God the Holy Ghost (Jefferson, worshipped for having inspired the birth of the Nation). Indeed, if we look up in the Capitol Rotunda, what do we see? A God-like George Washington looking at us from the Heavens.

Parts of the city of Washington are the functional equivalent of the Vatican for the Catholics or Mecca for the Muslims. Places of worship where perhaps we are also reminded of the lessons of democracy; but where we especially celebrate the “Mystery of American Renewal” (Bill Clinton’s words during his inaugural address) –as if it were a myth of Death and Resurrection.

So, if America is a “mystery” it is not part of the conscious experience. It is a miracle; an act of God. And the president must be a mix of a Biblical Prophet and the Roman Pontifex Maximus. As Prophet he leads. As Pontifex he celebrates, invokes and blesses.

Only in America, among the modern industrial democracies, do we find in the speeches of presidents so many invocations to God and his blessings. Imagine the French President routinely concluding a speech with the formula “God bless you and God bless France”. It would be odd, if not bizarre.

But not in America. We do have a special relationship with the Almighty who –as we can read on our dollar bills– “Annuit Coeptis“, (“Smiled on our Undertakings”) and it is “In God [that] We Trust”. From this vantage point, America is a mystical, rather than a political creation. This is not a state. For many at least, it is the New Jerusalem. As the Jews of old, we have a special Covenant with God and He will not let us down. In the hour of Great Peril he will send to us another Great Man. And this Hero may sacrifice himself in order to give us a better future. Thus Lincoln, and thus John and Bob Kennedy.

But the peculiar thing is that the celebrated heroes of our past certainly did not regard themselves as Gods. They were concerned members on their communities who acted to promote ideas which had gained wide currency among the educated elites of the late XVIII century. The concepts of individual freedom, representative government, tolerance and free expression were not conceived in America. America is unique in as much as these ideas managed to take firm roots here, while they never found sufficiently fertile ground where they have been produced –that is in the Old Continent.

Most fundamentally, the George Washingtons of the time understood that the fortunes of democratic government did not and do not rest on the extraordinary leadership capabilities of some philosopher-president; but in the mature civic spirit of the majority of the people whose thoughtful involvement in public affairs is the life blood of a republic. Indeed, a successful democracy is premised on responsible and thoughtful citizenry; citizens who first and foremost want to and can manage their own lives; citizens who are responsible members of their families and of their communities. The Founding Fathers understood that restraint and common sense were precious commodities, not to be taken for granted but absolutely necessary. Hence the healthy skepticism expressed by Publius in the celebrated Federalist Paper Number 51.

We instead seem to misunderstand a great deal about our history as a successful democracy. We attribute our glorious past to all-knowing demigods and our not so brilliant present to their absence from the scene. We have totally unrealistic ideas about what national leaders can do and thus we feel entitled to be constantly disappointed. We have silly love affairs with candidates and presidents only to discard them like yesterday’s newspaper because somehow they failed to make us dream as long as we wanted them to.

So, the political debate is disproportionately devoted to the symbolism of government rather than the substance and the consequences of governmental action. Electoral campaigns are circuses dominated by pollsters and image consultants with a silly chorus of a sensationalist media.

Ronald Reagan said that “It is morning in America” and America believed him; not because, upon careful consideration, we concluded that what he said was true; but because he said it well and with the right intonation and with the occasional tear in his eye which added credibility to his delivery.

All those who knew better were silenced by the chorus of silly adoration. Thus it was in bad taste to make an issue about the fact that president Reagan understood little about issues and that his misguided economic prejudices were contributing to the destabilization of our national finances. The people liked their Great Communicator and nobody seriously tried to tell them the truth.

George Bush Senior instead spoke with convoluted syntax, appeared uncertain about “the economy” and we fired him because we were told by the pundits that he lacked “vision”. Never mind that he won the Gulf War. The problem is that the economic recovery that was supposed to follow our victory did not materialize in time for the November 1992 elections. Never mind that every reasonable person knows that a president can do very little to control economic cycles. America felt very uncomfortable about its economy (later findings proved that the situation was not so horrible after all) and felt unhappy with a president who, when asked as to his plans, could only look embarrassed and mutter vague hopes that things somehow would adjust themselves. Since things did not get any better soon enough, (we are an impatient people, you know), we decided that we should try a different cure.

So, a crucial percentage of the American people, this bastion of rugged free enterprise, historically suspicious of government cures for economic ills, was sold in a matter of minutes to the idea that we, as a nation, were failing because we were the only major country lacking an “economic strategy”. Remember “the Economy- Stupid”? This was Bill Clinton’s main ammunition during the presidential campaign and the real winning point. All successful nations –explained super policy expert Bill Clinton– succeed because they have a “strategy”. Under the mindless and intellectually obtuse Republicans –added Professor Clinton– we failed to develop one, hence the lingering recession. Elect Clinton, implement the Bold New Strategy and everything will be fine.

Ipso facto.

Out went Bush, in came Clinton “The Leader with the Strategy”. At that time, nobody bothered to examine closely the premise laid out by Clinton: i.e. that centrally planned economic “strategies” are successful. Well, the record shows that most nations that tried to implement economic strategies (from the heavy duty Soviet style ones to the more modest “dirigiste” models like the French) failed miserably. West European Social Democracy, the well intentioned economic and social model of the 1960s and the 1970s, is now regarded as a monumental strategic failure which sapped the energies of European societies. But we never bother to look these facts up. As a nation, we become so absorbed with the latest slogan –as long as it is propounded with sincere conviction by the latest would-be Moses– that we do not bother to check the facts and the real experience of the others.

And so we live in ignorance of what government can do and what to expect from presidents. What is worse, many among the experts, the analysts, the pundits are unconscious victims of the same ignorance. Of course, at least some of them know better. But why be spoilers? No. The game has to continue. We cannot say that the Emperor has no Clothes. And, in this case, the Emperor is not the president. The Unclothed Emperor is a fickle people whose pulse we are constantly taking, with the help of the most sophisticated pollsters in the world. And yet we know very well that on most issues the opinions expressed in various polls are just epidermic moods of moody people; responses of the moment to the fad of the moment.

We are constantly asking Americans how they judge the performance of a president and then we sometimes see how the results of these polls become self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet, whenever we test the substantive knowledge of the same people about the actual actions of the administration –that is to say the facts on which they base their ratings on the president’s performance—quite often we discover significant ignorance. So, The People actually know little; yet somehow they have the gift that makes them able to discern a good president from a bad one. And the TV anchors who announce the results of these polls assume a grave intonation, as if they were reporting on the careful deliberations of the village elders, as opposed to the epidermic emotions of not so deeply informed people.

But the issue here is not who is to blame. The issue is that these attitudes about democratic government and our elected representatives show how dysfunctional our society is becoming. I say our “society” and not our “political system”, for the political system is the expression of the society and its level of maturity.

That having been said, what is to be done? There is no simple solution. The long term cure is education, education, education. And education goes beyond “information”. Civic Education involves, as a minimum, a basic grasp of where the healthy boundary between the personal and the public sphere in a democratic society should be. If most Americans understood this, and acted accordingly, we would see many of our “problems” in a far better perspective. We would then be self-guided as individuals. From government we would expect no miracles; only fairness aimed at giving everybody a good chance to participate and good administration.

Of course, this is a portrait of an ideal society in an ideal world. Still, this is the direction that we should aim for. Continuing to lull ourselves in our misguided fantasies about Saviors and Rescuers –Barak Obama being only the latest manifestation of this syndrome– will not improve our condition a bit.

“The Decline of America” Revisited

WASHINGTON – Remember Yale historian Paul Kennedy and his 1987 tome on “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”? At that time there was a lot of interest in this fairly comprehensive narrative focusing on how all major western powers, primarily because of the huge cost of maintaining their Empires, suffered progressive economic decline and eventual decay. Thus Spain –in Kennedy’s argument– thus Great Britain and thus – inevitably– the US. The book sparked a spirited debate about the future of the US as the leading power of the century. The combination of a sputtering economy, strong Japanese competition and raising security expenditures necessary to maintain the American Empire would lead to bankruptcy and thus to the inevitable –if sad—retreat from global ambitions. Kennedy’s work contributed to a new self-reflective atmosphere that gave rise, among other things, to efforts aimed at investigating the soundness of the main pillars that sustain the edifice of America’s might. Think tanks, the Congress, and the Federal Government launched studies, initiatives and task forces on “US Competitiveness” –or lack thereof. The newly formed bipartisan Concord Coalition started warning Americans as to the structural damage caused by runaway deficits due in large part to the unstoppable growth of spending on entitlement programs.

So, according to the conventional wisdom of the late 1980s, we were overstretched militarily because of the Cold War security commitments highlighted by the 300,000 troops permanently stationed in Europe, as our most visible contribution to NATO and by the questionable idea of spending billions of dollars on the Star Wars program, that is space based ballistic missile defenses. We had lost our edge in economic innovation. We were assaulted by the Japanese bulldozer from the East. This was the time, we should remember, in which the trade deficit was about Japan; while Japanese concerns had started a buying spree in America that, according to many, even serious, observers, had all the markings of a progressive take over of our economy. Meanwhile the “Europe 1992” agenda, the solemn commitment on the part of the then European Community to pull down residual internal barriers and create a brand new, vibrant market, seemed to foretell a new era of economic primacy for the Old Continent, engineered behind the walls of a “Fortress Europe” that –it was feared– would exclude Americans. Here at home, because of misguided fiscal policies and unhealthy personal spending habits, we –the Government and the individual citizens– were slowly but surely drowning in debt. That was the picture then. It was the widely shared notion that the economy was on the verge of collapse, especially after the mild recession of 1991 that propelled technocratic Bill Clinton and his panoply of new, original economic ideas (never really implemented, by the way) to the White House.

But, in the meantime, the unexpected happened –on many fronts. 1989 did not give us just the promise of German reunification. It was the first shock wave that signaled the collapse of the Soviet Empire and thus the end of the major threat to US security. The final demise of the biggest existential threat was the justification to significantly cut defense spending and international commitments in the 1990s. This dramatic change, combined with a resurgent faith in small government, especially after the republican revolution of 1994 masterminded by Newt Ginrich, meant that runaway federal spending could be contained.

At the same time, without the support of any particular blueprint devised in Washington, the information revolution was unfolding. Rather than creating a new economy, the massive adoption of IT by all businesses meant a massive leap forward in the competitiveness of the US economy. We had spectacular growth year after year, record low unemployment and high tax receipts that gave us for the first time in decades a federal budget surplus. At the same time, without the US lifting a finger, Japan, because of its internal social, rather than economic, contradictions, fizzled, while the predictions of the rise of a robust, innovative and economically powerful Europe proved to be quite wrong. And so, we had the roaring ‘90s: a prolonged period of American unchallenged economic primacy. The US was first in everything: innovation in high tech, creation of new employment, record productivity increases.

But it all seemed to have ended somewhat ignominiously with the beginning of the new millennium. We have had the bust, accompanied by the Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and other well known corporate scandals which ushered the Wall Street contraction and the ensuing long bear market. The 9/11 attacks, occurring during this downward spiral certainly did not help.

And now, where are we now? There are disturbing signs that would indicate that Paul Kennedy and other were after all right in predicting decline. Only they were incorrect as to how close it was and what would cause it. The root cause is not “Imperial Overstretch”, but the erosion of US competitiveness due to lack of investments in both human capital and needed infrastructure, accompanied by the unstoppable growth of entitlement programs. Sure enough, at this time we also have a war. The prolonged Iraqi campaign has become stupendously expensive. But, regardless as to one’s own political opinion about the war, this commitment, in an as of itself, is economically affordable.

While a war and an increased Pentagon budget are a drain on public finances at the expense of productive investments, the real problems are in the same factors that were identified 20 years ago, at the time of the “competitiveness debate”, by most sensible analysts: a more and more expensive welfare state that cannot sustain itself financially, and the progressive erosion of the education advantage that made America the principal player in the knowledge economy. If we continue to follow the notion that large segments of the American society, mostly the elderly and the retirees, have an inherent right to subsidized benefits that represent an excessive drainage of national resources, the federal government, even assuming the ability to finance these obligations, will have nothing left for productive investments. The secondary public education system, in turn, provides mediocre graduates, while minorities, on balance, do a lot worse than the already low average. It is impossible to sustain this increasingly complex economy without a dramatic improvement in the quality of the labor force.

The fantastic explosion of the trade deficit is the manifestation of eroded competitiveness. The 40 billion dollar deficits that scared us about Japan in the 1980s are pocket change compared to the 220 plus billion that we have nowadays with China alone, (not to mention the increased cost of our energy habits: at 300 billion in 2006, higher than the cost of imports from China). 

Unfortunately, the argument on how to best rebalance our trade accounts has been successfully framed by a strange medley of simplistic romantics and demagogues who point the finger at the combined perils of free trade and outsourcing. By opening ourselves to foreign producers –so the refrain goes– we allow cheaper goods to come in. This means that US companies that have much higher costs go out of business or move overseas. Good American jobs go abroad because greedy corporations want to save money by having cheaper foreigners perform jobs previously held by higher paid Americans. The solutions advocated? Essentially close our borders, so that the jobs stay in and the foreign goods out. In this new era of global and irreversible interdependencies, the notion that this way we shall be able to regain, maintain and for ever keep our supposedly God given infinite prosperity is bizarre; but, nonetheless, it has strong emotional appeal.

However, if it is clearly futile to try and close our borders to keep cheap goods out or to prevent businesses from outsourcing, we still have a huge problem which is indeed caused by globalization. But not the globalization demonized by the protectionists. It is caused by the global spreading of the knowledge economy model developed first in America whose successful exploitation gave the US the edge for a number of years.

We have to come to terms with the fact that the genie of IT innovation has been out of the Silicon Valley bottle for a long, long time. We cannot restrict inventiveness and entrepreneurship –the key components of the American success story– to the American soil. The main ingredients of a knowledge based economy are transferable and so (despite copy cat failures and other clumsy attempts) they are transferred elsewhere today and more so in the intervening years.

True, the 1990s triumph of America’s reacquired competitiveness was due to a complex mix of factors that cannot all be easily reproduced. The lively, free wheeling, chaotic mixture of entrepreneurs, academics, venture capitalists and their interactions with established corporate entities that buy, absorb, invest in new ventures, as yet, has no equivalent elsewhere around the world, in terms of depth and scope.But some of its elements can be replicated. No doubt, by trial and error in time others will manage to produce adequately funded innovative clusters that will be able to quickly direct new discoveries to a hungry global marketplace.

The celebrated Bangalore example in India is illustrative. Leaving aside all other considerations, the Indians have managed to create and aggregate in productive clusters world class human capital (scientists, engineers, software programmers) and to harness it effectively in competitive IT enterprises. To keep things in perspective, we should remind ourselves that Bangalore is still mostly about outsourcing and not about innovation. Moreover, the whole Indian high tech phenomenon is only a small speck within a still primitive Indian economy which is constrained by inefficient administration and crumbling infrastructures. India has an enormous population that is still largely poor or very poor. So, the days of Indian supremacy are still in the distant future.

But Bangalore and other such examples around the world will multiply, as more and more people gain access to higher education, IT literacy and mundane computer and business skills that cannot be kept within the West and America. The very information revolution unleashed by the American genius becomes the vessel that greatly expedites the transfer of knowledge that will create new centers of excellence where none existed before. Furthermore, the Indian example proves that we do not need an economy that is overall highly developed to create islands of modernity that can compete on practically any level with counterparts in advanced economies. Indeed, centers of competitive high tech can be established even without the fertile ground of an already developed economy that has already successfully dealt with  macroeconomic issues.

These new enterprises, especially those established in business friendly developing countries where the cost of professional for many years to come will continue to be much lower than America’s, are bound to gain world market share, inevitably at our expense. If even a small fraction (as a percentage of the total population) of Indians and Chinese become good scientists, their absolute numbers will be sufficient to tip the balance. Our only hope to stay competitive is in continuing to invest in new technologies and new ideas so that superior innovative products and services will continue to be created in America.

But here we have a serious problem. Americans are so used to primacy that they do not believe that the ingredients that make this primacy possible need to be nurtured, refined and upgraded, especially now that we are confronted with new, capable competitors that have the added edge of a lower cost structure. (For instance, it has taken 20 years to the slow moving, no pun intended, automobile industry to have just recently what appears to be a collective awakening, with the active participation of the unions representing its thousands of workers. But it seems that only the specter of demise convinced the main players that dramatic cost cutting–be it salaries or health care benefits– is imperative in order to have a chance to compete. But, even if successfully implemented, these strategies are clearly not enough to get Detroit out of the woods. In the next few years we shall see whether the bitter cost cutting medicine will be accompanied by a new wave of creativity that is the real hope for recreating a competitive edge for this ailing sector). 

While discussions about the international economy abound, for the time being, we have not framed the debate in a way that will foster real progress. Unfortunately, to the extent that the general public has been brought into the conversation, it is fed gross distortions and oversimplifications pointing at the consequences of lost competitiveness, such as job losses. The conversation is mostly on allegedly bad trade policies and greedy corporations. If we could only change Washington’s direction on trade, all will be well. Indeed, the debate is mostly about identifying culprits and quick fixes. So, according to these critics, beyond the international trade policy incompetence (close to treasonous behavior), the enemies are the Asians, (yesterday Japan, today China) who do not play by the rules and the illegal immigrants who steal domestic jobs while depressing wages. This sort of populism may work with many constituencies in uncertain economic times; but it explains nothing about the causes of our ailments and its remedies would cure nothing.

The reality is that we have structural, systemic problems that need to be addressed now, so that we can begin to change course and hopefully improve our conditions for the long term. While the misbehavior of others is real (think of Chinese disregard for intellectual property rights and the ensuing flood of pirated software and counterfeit goods; think of the Mexican government actively encouraging the emigration to America of the country’s surplus labor), there are inherently domestic structural deficiences that slow down America and that have eroded its ability to compete. To name a few critical ones: a deteriorating education system, the unsustainable cost of the welfare state and the lack of a serious energy strategy.

Clearly the soft underbelly of America is a mediocre to bad education system right at the time when new, world class centers of higher learning are sprouting around the world. America for a long time nurtured domestic talent while, by design or by default, (think about the intellectual migration to America from Nazi occupied Europe), it was able to attract first class minds from around the world. After all, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller were not Americans. But they were welcomed in America and the American intellectual and scientific environment was able to absorb this talent and greatly benefit from it. In more recent years there has been a significant influx of gifted Asians. But now the pull of America is not as compelling as it used to be in the light of the fact that good opportunities exist elsewhere.

At the same time, it is now apparent that the American public education system, the incubator that should nurture the future scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs is at best mediocre, deeply flawed in its worst components and certainly inadequate to create the world class work force that will have to compete on quality, as costs already work against us. The existence of several world class universities is not sufficient to guarantee that the broader US workforce will be able to compete with increasingly more sophisticated foreigners. A sub par worke force will make it difficult to compete, let alone strengthen, our positions in high value added strategic areas.

While it is hard to admit it, a huge chunk of the old manufacturing base of America is either gone or going. We lost a lot of steel, machine tools; we lost footwear, apparel; we have disturbing signs that we cannot keep up in automobiles. We have a battle unfolding in aerospace. Still, American success stories in valuable, technologically complex industries (think of GE, 3M, United Technologies, Boeing among many others) show that, despite higher labor cost, superior quality, when it can be reinforced by constant refinement, still counts.

By the same token, we still have an edge in services. But this is entirely dependent on the continuous waves of IT innovation. If we are no longer on the forefront of IT, because we can no longer compete with increasingly more competent but much cheaper Indians and Chinese, we have lost the competitiveness contest.

Much has been said about the increased welfare costs due to the demographic changes that America is experiencing, along with most other developed countries. The question is whether it is smart, in the long run, to have a central government whose main function is to distribute benefits at the cost of everything else. Even now, while immediate solvency is not an issue, the federal government devotes relatively smaller portions of its resources to productive investments, given the weight of the entitlement obligations. As we all know, in the future this is only going to get worse. It is understood that taking something away from people who believe that they have earned a partially subsidized old age is extremely hard. But there is an opportunity cost in spending most of our revenues on welfare and little on competitiveness enhancing investments. Unfortunately few people enumerate the thousand of research projects or new infrastructure that could be financed by the federal government, assuming a reduction in entitlement programs.

The energy picture is dismal. We have excessive consumption, little and declining production and increased dependence on imports that is financially burdensome, while it creates a serious strategic vulnerability. What we need is not just the tinkering provided by this or that pork laden energy bill; but a bold new energy strategy that would set realistic goals regarding alternatives to hydrocarbons, while actively discouraging consumption through revenue neutral gasoline taxes. In doing so, America would free itself from this straightjacket, while possibly becoming the world leader in all new technologies related to alternative energy.

But in all these areas: education, welfare reform and energy, while there is a debate and many have offered sensible solutions, we are far from having reached the deep understanding that is the prelude to decisive action. While many are worried, most believe that things are more or less fine and that we have enough slack to muddle through.

In hindsight, similar historic circumstances characterized by a passive attitude that in effects allows the sliding into decay (and here we go back to Paul Kennedy) are recognized as due to a state of mind of myopic denial and complacency of people who have lost their way. But usually this is the verdict of historians. And when they pronounce it, it is too late to change anything.

Modern Cost Effective Public Policy for America

By Paolo von Schirach

September 28, 2007

WASHINGTON – I was really hoping that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would have entered the race for the Republican nomination and that he may have had a shot at the presidency. Apparently he decided otherwise. This was not an ideologically motivated, partisan wish for conservative leadership. This was and is about the hope that a credible public figure (Gingrich or someone with a similar approach) who has articulated and would push an agenda for the modernization of the state, for the introduction of viable technologies and cost effectiveness in public policy may bring fresh air in stale debates long on abstract ideological posturing and short on the need to drastically upgrade the effectiveness of the government’s tools. The tools (in terms of both institutions and technologies) are low quality and often obsolete. Without good tools we cannot implement anything meaningful.

Good government is about sound principles, of course. But, in the end, it is about the timely, cost effective, delivery of needed services. Whereas, amazingly, America is sorely deficient when it comes to modern tools necessary to plan and deliver basic public services. Whatever the reasons, two years after Katrina we still have not built adequate levees in New Orleans. We have collapsed bridges in Minnesota for lack of a system that would guarantee appropriate levels of care and repair of basic infrastructure. The Washington DC public school system not only fails to educate the children, but it does not even have the basic logistics to deliver badly needed pencils and books from a central warehouse to the classrooms.

In the country renowned for its innovative genius and technological advances –innovations that have led to a productivity revolution in all fields– the tools of public policy are horrendously outdated. Thus the ability to deliver high quality services is hampered. At the same time, because of consolidated, systemic inefficiencies, expectations of effectiveness on the part of the public have become surprisingly low. As people are used to public inefficiency, they have come to accept it as normal.

Here is a glaring example of inefficiency that could be easily remedied, assuming focus, will and better organization. Consider air traffic congestion and the reality of constant disruptions, more and more delays and mounting frustrations for the public that has emerged as a major national issue in recent months. President Bush, at a recent White House meeting aimed at addressing possible solutions, said, among other things, that, due to this mess, passengers are not treated fairly. This might suggest a focus on issues of improved customer relations for the airlines; such as providing timely information to customers about delays or compensating them adequately in case of severe travel disruptions.

While all this may help, this has little to do with the cause of the problem. The real issue is a stupendously obsolete air traffic control system incapable of coping with more and more flights. Why is it that we had to reach this unprecedented level of air gridlock to put forward a plan aimed at phasing in a new, more efficient space based system for air traffic control? And how long is it going to take to fully implement it? If the federal bureaucracy is expected to lead the phasing in of these new systems, it will be decades. Air traffic control management is a complex and delicate matter, but well within the technological know how of the United States of America.

And, equally important, why is it that we are unable to look at how to meet the needs of the traveling public in a broader context? The current problem is posited as: “More and more people are flying. How can we create a system that can accommodate these ever increasing volumes”? This is a good question. But it is incomplete, as we leave out of the equation other cost effective modalities of transportation that may be good in their own right, while they would help relieve at least some of the air congestion. In other words, flying is not the only good option.

Whatever the reasons, it is inconceivable that one of the most technologically advanced countries of the world has not managed to introduce high speed trains as a real cost effective alternative to air travel between relatively close large urban centers. For example, in this context of growing congestion in the air, especially in the North East, we have two airlines (Delta and US Air) that offer regular shuttle service between New York and Washington and between New York and Boston. The shuttle theoretically should be a convenient one hour flight. But we know that this is not so when we add the time to get to and from airports, security screenings and, most importantly these days, additional time wasted due to traffic congestion that delays departing and landing flights.

The existing, relatively fast, Acela trains between Washington and New York already cut down travel time to a level that is comparable to flight time plus airport transfers. Of course, significant investments would be necessary to build new tracks that would allow true high speed in the New York Washington corridor and increased passenger loads. But, even now, the case could be made that, as a matter of public policy, flights such as those between Washington and New York should be strongly discouraged, when good alternatives based on reasonably fast trains are available. It may not be much, but transferring the shuttle travelers to trains would help reduce congestion in the overcrowded air space of the New York area; while it would foster a more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, not to mention more pleasant, way to travel.

Further down the line, let us imagine a future in which most of the travel between the large urban centers of the North East, or along the coast of California, would take place via a network of high speed trains. This would significantly curtail congestion in the air, allowing airplanes to fulfill their true mission, that is, to take people to faraway places or to places that cannot be reached reasonably fast, in a cost effective way, through other means.

Of course, all this is complicated and quite expensive. Building new tracks in densely populated states would require significant up front capital investments; not to mention the legal complexities involved in the need to acquire the necessary tracts of land. But, however complicated, this is not an impossible idea and certainly not beyond the means of the world’s largest economy.

Yet, before even starting to think about efficient new modalities that could be made available to the traveling public, the current crop of policy-makers, faced with the task of confronting the probable resistance to change from organized lobbies, interest groups and bureaucratic inertia, have already given up, because leading on such  complex issues is just too hard.

This is why in this political season we would have needed someone like former Speaker Gingrich (no idea as to what his thinking may be on the specific issue of high speed trains) who seems to be willing to challenge the way we organize and deliver public services and rally the public behind the notion that, if we try, it is entirely possible to shake an outmoded, clumsy and inefficient way to conceive and conduct public policy.

Government “for the people”, beyond slogans and idealistic pronouncements aimed at stirring voters’ emotions at election time, in the end is quite simply about the delivery of high quality services and/or about creating a regulatory environment that induces the private sector to step in and do what is cost effective for the delivery of services useful for the society. The people of one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth are entitled to demand and get more value for their tax dollars.

The Health of the Americans

By Paolo von Schirach

August 30, 2007

WASHINGTON – Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, for the moment a second tier candidate for the republican presidential nomination, warns about obesity in America and the health and economic damages that it causes. A former obese himself, he talks with the passion and credibility of the reformed food addict. Recently he proclaimed the obesity epidemic to be so widespread that, according to recent statistics, 61 per cent of US active duty troops are overweight. So even those who arguably should be fit and combat ready are somewhat impaired by excess weight. Other recently released statistics indicate that obesity has increased, with special incidence in many southern states. Most alarmingly, children are increasingly overweight and obese.

The ill effects of obesity, for the individual and for society, are well documented. This is a public health crisis with significant economic consequences (increased medical costs, lost productivity due to debilitating ailments) according to many studies and projections. And yet, while talked about, this issue has not acquired the character of urgency that it deserves. And this is the country that is arguably one of the world leaders in medical research and epidemiology.

True, the subject is not totally ignored, but the effort made to educate the public is modest; its impact –as the ravaging obesity epidemic shows– insignificant. While there are here and there messages aimed at fostering a healthier lifestyle, contrast them with the systematic bombardment of publicity for drugs/devices aimed at helping people cope with chronic ailments caused by obesity that could be prevented, at least in many cases.

For instance, in the last couple of years, there has been an explosion of TV commercials about more and more sophisticated blood testing devices for diabetics. The individuals featured in these commercial are often overweight. The millions of overweight people who have developed diabetes –largely on account of obesity due to bad diet– may be delighted in learning that their annoying glucose checking routine may have become less invasive, due to refinements in technology. Medical technology companies, in turn, must be extremely happy in the growth of the population of diabetics. Their market grows and sales will soar. 

But is there an equivalent amount of public health messages in the airwaves aimed at explaining to the public how drastic life style changes may go a long way in preventing/eliminating diabetes and thus the attendant need to monitor blood sugar levels? Certainly the device makers are not going to advertise the benefit of preventative actions that may reduce their customer base. So who will?

From a libertarian stand point, there should be no public authority nannies telling people what to do about their personal habits. The individual has freedom of choice. If people want to overeat, let them do so and face the health consequences of obesity later in life. But we know that it is not so. When a problem reaches these dimensions, its costs are shared in terms of overcrowded medical facilities and increased insurance premiums for all. Besides, the contemplation of such a huge self inflicted wound in terms of waste of human potential in one of the richest nations on earth should invite some reflection. And then there is the added problem of children who, lacking the maturity to know any better, tend to follow the example of their obese elders. Thus they develop early on bad habits that it will be difficult to shed later in life, even with a good dose of will power.

What is suggested here is not coercion to force people to change their life styles. But there is a need for a deliberate, multi year, sophisticated campaign aimed at providing the scientific evidence of what can and will go wrong with bad nutrition and lack of exercise. At the same time, as a matter of urgent remedial action, public authorities should immediately modify all nutrition programs delivered through the school systems and other venues so that only healthy food is offered to children. There is some movement in this direction.

A much more daunting and complex task, extremely difficult to craft, but crucial for future success, is an education system that would help people discover for themselves the value of “well being” as a life goal.

Given the seriousness of this predicament, it is astonishing that progress across the board is so slow. In the case of policies aimed at school children, it is largely dependent on the vigor and decisiveness of individual administrators. The scientific community knows what needs to be done and the urgency of the problem. America’s political leaders know this. And yet, with the exception of former governor Huckabee mentioned above and California’s governor Arnold Shwarzenegger, (a former body builder), who has engaged in a statewide campaign to promote more exercise and better school meals, this is not a hot topic in the United States.

As a minimum, a simple question comes to mind: what good does it do for America to have some of the most sophisticated public health research institutions and medical care delivery system in the world, if we are unable to reverse this massive epidemic that clearly points to a reduction in quality of life and life expectancy for millions, with an even worse future projected for the younger generations?

While there may be multiple factors that contribute to this disappointing picture, it would appear that the concept of public health in the US is not conceptually and practically tied to prophylaxes and to a complete understanding of what “well being” and how it should be promoted in order to help people discover its immense value. About public health, there seems to be a dominant compartmentalized approach that could be summarized as “until you can function reasonably well, you are OK; when you are sick, you go see a doctor, (if you can afford one) and he’ll fix whatever is wrong with you”.

The world class state of the art medical facilities (and the attendant accumulated scientific knowledge) are there to fix problems after they have manifested themselves. And, in many instances, they can do this extremely well, especially when direct intervention is the most logical answer. And this is attested, for instance, by more and more sophisticated surgical techniques. But, while surgery can be a life saver in many situations, a system that is geared primarily towards fixing the consequences of problems is not really helping people as it could.

Besides, it is neither smart nor cost effective. It looks at people only after they have become patients; in the same way as the fire brigade intervenes only if there is a fire; or the police is called upon after a crime has been committed. When there is an ailment there is a diagnosis and, if possible, a cure. From this perspective, the doctor is mostly a mechanic who is called upon if and when a problem manifests itself. (Actually auto mechanics can be more proactive. My mechanic sends me notices reminding me that it has been so many months since my car has had a tune up. I have never received a note from my physician reminding me about the need to have a periodical physical or even the tests that are now routinely recommended for people beyond a certain age, such as a colonoscopy).

Of course, this is a deliberate exaggeration. Indeed, there are many programs aimed at preventing some diseases, like breast cancer for women, based on frequent screening of people who appear healthy but may not be; as an invisible, not yet symptomatic, ailment, may be underway. The highly publicized campaign against smoking is another example. But these are ad hoc measures founded on the enormous publicity created around one or another particular ailment or issue by organized pressure groups.

Overall, there is no systematic effort aimed at educating people as to the psychological as well as physical advantages of a well balanced life; a life that would include healthy habits, including exercise of body and mind and good nutrition. And this should not be done in the name of hygene, just because “it is good for you”; but because it is a worthy objective aimed at making life truly enjoyable. 

But, beyond small circles of specialists, there is no debate as to why people seem to have such a hard time in discovering for themselves the positive consequences of healthy habits that would prevent something like the current obesity epidemic.

At the very best, we have some experts discussing the advantages of good habits in terms of prevention, But here the paramount objective is not an interest in the well being of the human person. The concern is primarily economic. Look at how much money, how many precious resources could be saved if people had good habits that would keep them healthy and so they would not need so much medical care. Clearly it is more cost effective to encourage healthy habits in the general population and to test people so that diseases can be caught early, as opposed to allowing the growth of degenerative diseases and wait until people require care and hospitalization thus causing much higher costs. Prevention is of course good; but, even if built into the system (and it is not), it would not capture the whole extent of the problem: that is a lack of interest in the complete well being of the human person.

And here we come to a gigantic paradox. It would appear that, in America, the collective understanding of the famous Jeffersonian “pursuit of happiness” that all people supposedly strive to attain–and that can take place in a condition of liberty– has been squeezed into the narrow confines of economic pursuits. Sure, economic prosperity is essential, for without it individual and societal choices are constrained.

But prosperity is a means to an end. The end should be a balanced person, enjoying a state of well being. There is a strident contradiction between people whose industry produces an overall prosperous country and an increasing proportion of the same people who produce prosperity engaging in what amounts to be self destructive personal habits that ultimately jeopardize the enjoyment of happiness. That very happiness whose free pursuit is made possible by the complex institutional machinery that we have created to protect it and uphold it.

If indeed a great deal of the wealth produced through assiduous work and the exercise of human ingenuity by the Americans is devoted to engage in personal unhealthy habits that inevitably increase diseases, diminish the quality of life, while shortening it, making people less happy in the process, one should really wonder what the point of all this is.

Citizens not Immigrants

by Paolo von Schirach

July 1, 2007

WASHINGTON – Fate had it that the legislative proposal to overhaul immigration rules, while providing a path to eventual citizenship to millions of illegals in the US was defeated just a few days before the Fourth of July. While this was clearly accidental, this coincidence gives us an opportunity to stress the deep connection between the ritual celebration of the Nation’s birth and any attempt, successful or not, aimed at determining who can be a lawful part of the Nation. As America’s future will be largely determined by the beliefs of its citizens, any discussion about citizenship should have included provisions aimed at establishing what kind of civic preparation is necessary to be a good citizen. But, while induction to citizenship was mentioned in the debate, this was just one out many issues, not a central concern, as it should have been.

Beyond cook outs and fireworks, the Fourth should be a reminder that this Republic is founded on principles, while the strength of these principles will determine its future viability. Remarkable success to date in the ability to preserve a republican government founded on the central notion of the sovereignty of the individual and on the duty of government to preserve individual liberties is no guarantee of future performance. Future successes will be determined by the preservation of the values that inspired the Founders, not as antiquarian curiosities but as vibrant, ever relevant principles to be upheld.

Given a society based not on ethnicity or religion but on values, the deep understanding and enthusiastic upholding of these principles counts, whether on the part of the existing populace or newcomers. Very important in the case of newcomers when they arrive in millions; thus altering the existing make-up. For the new citizens, the mandatory Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution, (taken freely, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion), should not be just a ritualized formula. It should be a pondered act, full of meaning. But this postulates a deep understanding of what this Constitution means. But neither proponents of reform (or amnesty, or whatever one’s preferred definition) nor its opponents have included in their arguments the fundamental issue of how we can ensure that the new citizens really understand and appreciate the true significance of the enterprise they are about to join.

In the past this crucial issue of how people come to acquire a true sense of belonging was dealt with mostly implicitly. The newcomers, largely of European origin, willfully threw themselves into the proverbial “melting pot” in order to be quickly homogenized. They were eager to embrace (or surrender to) American values and principles because this was the most obvious key to fast track assimilation –and fast assimilation was clearly the overriding goal of most immigrants.

But today the goal of rapid assimilation is not as self-evident as it used to be, especially for millions of immigrants from Latin America who (unlike their European predecessors) can and do maintain strong ties with their countries and cultures of origin. (Geographic proximity makes a considerable difference). Of course there is nothing wrong with these enduring connections with families and cultures made comparatively easier by cheap travel, accessible communications and hassle free remittance transfers. But to the extent that recent legal immigrants (and the millions of illegal residents whose fate was under discussion during the debate) look at living in the United States mostly through the narrow lenses of economic expediency, we have a real problem. America cannot be just a place of employment or an efficient market that rewards economically the resourceful.

While it is true that America is attractive because it is the land of opportunity (by that meaning clearly “economic opportunity”), it behooves the citizens –and Government as the official gate keeper– to make sure that whoever gets in (or those whose status maybe eventually legalized) truly grasp, believe and understand the values of a society that felt enough confidence in itself to devise a system of limited republican government. It is evident that the continued real viability of this form of government is predicated and the shared values of the citizens. So, with full respect of the individual freedoms of thought and expression, (guaranteed, as it were, by the Constitution), it is important that some basic values that constitute the ground rules of belonging are not only understood but voluntarily upheld by all.

For instance, in the Catholic religion, before young persons receive their first communion, the Church prescribes a preparation process, Catechism. This period of instruction should guarantee that the individuals receiving communion are fully aware of what the act includes, so that they will be fully cognizant of what is entailed; active participants and not just passive recipients.

As far as US citizenship is concerned, formally there is a recognition of the obligation on the part of the would-be entrant to prove knowledge of the Constitution that they are about to swear allegiance to. But, unfortunately, what is required does not exceed the depth and sophistication of game show or Trivial Pursuits skills. People have to be able to reply satisfactorily to quizzes about the number of representatives in the House and the like; but little or no effort is spent to make people aware of what citizenship in this Republic should entail. And nobody seems to mind about this gap.

As a result of this neglect, most issues related to citizenship –as the recent debate indicated– are confined to the alleged or calculated economic and social costs and benefits of immigration. The proponents of immigration put forward the historically unassailable argument that America is a land of immigrants that has been enriched over more than two centuries by the millions who came to plant their new roots here. So, according to this logic, the more the merrier. This generalization may be valid about the past. But it longer holds true, at least not in its entirety, about the present and the future, simply because immigration is not what it used to be. The state of mind of many new immigrants motivated by economic incentives only cannot be compared to that of the millions who came to improve their conditions but also to willingly acquire a new social and political identity. They did this by adopting not just the economic rules of the host country but its underlying values.

The immigration debate is dead, for the time being. But immigration continues. A republic legitimized and made vibrant only by the beliefs of its diverse citizens should make sure that those beliefs include a deep and reasoned understanding of the rights and obligations of citizenship.