During the Super Bowl, one of America’s greatest icons had a commercial about rebounding as a country. Clint Eastwood, whose movie and TV career has always championed the anti-hero who took care of those disenfranchised, was the ideal spokesperson. His spiel was to look directly at those who are talking of our demise and say it was “only halftime in America.” He alluded the second half was about to start and America will come back. Like many, I am a huge Clint Eastwood fan not only for his acting, but for his community mindedness as a person, as well.
America is on the mend, yet has deeper, long-term issues to discuss. I am encouraged by our slow and reasonably steady progress of economic recovery. One of our shortcomings in our society is our impatience, so people looking for a silver bullet where success just happens are disappointed. Yet, there has been over the past many months a slow road of improvement. We are not out of the woods yet, but the fact people are entering the job market and some are actually quitting jobs before getting another is a sign of progress.
However, what Clint’s commercial did not allude to is we are on the losing side of the score, let’s say 17-12, and we have to kickoff before the second half starts. As I have noted in earlier posts, our founding fathers created a form of government which over time has shown to be the shining light on the hill to the rest of the world. I know the first attempt of creation required change, but what eventually became our Constitution and Bill of Rights is an amazing body of work. I do not advocate extreme factions of political parties monkeying around with something that should only be judiciously amended such as was the case to give African-Americans and women the same rights as white men.
Yet, while our system of government is a paragon, it is staffed with human beings with all of our biases and imperfections. When we collaborate, our diversity of thought and perspective is a wondrous thing to behold. There is a greater tendency to focus on the problems and how to come to amenable and workable solutions. I am reminded of Ed Harris’ character in the movie “Apollo 13” when he kept reminding his team of scientists to “work the problem.” On the flip side, when we bring in our strident views and do not collaborate, the ugliness is very apparent like it was last summer over the debt ceiling issue.
America has some long-term issues that need to be openly discussed. They require solutions that are well thought out and which will take time to fully implement and see the progress. Not only is our extreme partisanship an obstacle, our impatience is as well. This also happens in business, as leaders tend to err on the side of short-term solutions as they tend to not be around to see longer term solutions pay off. I have quoted before an old client of mine who said “we step over quarters to pick up nickels here.” I mention this as some of the solutions that are needed will require the formation of a plan which will have to last more than one President’s term. This planning will require us to be bi-partisan as the next President could be of a different party.
It begins with us having open dialogue about our problems and not politicians telling us what we want to hear. They need to tell us what we need to hear. And, tell us all what we need to do. It also begins with us not taking any idea off the table. This may be even harder as our present campaign funding system is exacerbating the lobbyist views where decisions will benefit the lobbyist and its funder. It also means we need to do our homework more to shine a light on vested interests in an outcome. The Internet is very powerful both ways. It can let groups of people mask opinion as data and fact to prove their point. There are many data points which are so biased due to the source and survey approach, we need to deeply discount or throw out the data. Unfortunately, they hide behind innocent sounding names with words like “America” and “Freedom” in the titles somewhere.
What we need to hear are politicians views on the following subjects and how they would create a process or framework to openly discuss ideas. We need politicians to advocate inclusion rather than exclusion, as we desperately need diverse opinions and ideas. Here is what we need to hear more about.
This is our most significant problem in America. We cannot survive as a global power if we have 30% of our students entering the 9th grade not graduating high school. We cannot survive as a power if we do not promote creativity and innovation in our schools. Some of the jobs that have left our shores will never come back. Also, note that innovation is portable in our new world. An innovator can get funding and take his idea to Indonesia, Brazil, India or China as he or she can get a better labor pool. If you do not believe me, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and World Economic Forum, we are ranked 23rd and 27th in math and science in the world. That is not the definition of American exceptionalism.
Economic Disparity and Jobs
The “Occupy Wall Street’ crowd has it right. Our economic distribution in our country is atrocious. When you look at a circle graph of our economic distribution against that of other first world countries with differing levels of capitalism and socialism, you would be embarrassed by which picture is America’s. As I follow the election process, it amazes me how many people actually vote against their own economic interests. There are severely down-trodden people who swear allegiance for the faint promise of prosperity under the Republican Party only because it makes them feel good to hear comforting platitudes about religion and freedoms.
Education will help toward eliminating the inappropriate disparity, but we need a more thoughtful process about getting these people back to work around industries that could flourish in their geographies. Please note I used the term “inappropriate disparity” as I do believe in capitalism, but capitalism with a heart. Even Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, said to be wary if the wealth is concentrated in too few. Part of his commentary was around you need society to flourish, so the disenfranchised need to be helped to get back on their feet.
Energy and Environment
I link these two as we must think of them together now. I won’t repeat my posts on these subjects, but in spite of what the GOP is telling people as propped up by the Oil and Gas Industry behind them, global warming is here. To his credit, the President is pushing the ball forward, but it needs to not be uphill. We need the other party at the table with open minds. One of the few things I applaud Newt Gingrich for is something for which he is being vilified by the conservative right. He did a commercial with Nancy Pelosi saying he was wrong about global warming and we need to do something about it. He is backtracking off that statement, but he should not.
Solar energy can now be produced for $3 a watt down from $9 a watt. The CEO of Solar Strata said he believes it can get down to $1 a watt in the next few years. He also sees a day in the next ten years where we can produce 1 MW of power at solar plant, which would rival a nuclear plant. This is only an example. Wind power is in abundance in this country. Yes, we need to contend with what it does to bird migration – especially on the coasts – but this is one of the cleanest solutions we have. There so many other strains of innovation in alternative energy, especially around hydro power and biomass, e.g.
We have to diminish at a faster rate the non-renewable energy sources. Coal can be made cleaner, but there is no such thing as clean coal while it is burned or in the ash pond receptacles. Natural gas can be harvested, but we need to look closely at the environmental impact and not listen solely to the oil and gas companies. Fracking causes underground water pollution and there is a strong correlation to a significantly greater number of earthquakes – Oklahoma has seen a huge uptick, e.g. The President was correct to delay the pipeline from the oils shands in Canada. Why? The pipeline owner opened another pipeline in the past eighteen months and has already had fifteen oil spills. Nuclear energy has its place, but do not believe anyone that says what happened in Japan cannot happen here. Progress Energy has a closed nuclear plant that has structural issues in Florida, as we speak.
Yet, a key is the conservation issue. The higher mpg standards and promotion of electric and hybrid cars are and will pay dividends. The community and state efforts of utilities to promote less usage and greener strategies are also working. We all need to do our part to conserve less. And, if that does not scare you, a study was done about how many people can Earth support. If we all consumed like the average Rwandan, the Earth could support 15 billion people. If we all consumed like the average North American, it could support 1.2 billion. We have over 7 billion people today and others want to consume more. So, this is a problem we have to deal with now.
Whether it is financial or physical, we need to improve our infrastructure in this country. On the financial side, we need to find the right balance of regulation and free enterprise. There are two truisms – business leaders do not want regulations and business leaders need regulations – please refer to the short-term profit mindset above. Yet, we need to be less bureaucratic about what we do. The regulations should not stifle creativity and should promote and reward innovation. While at the same time, we need to make sure people are treated fairly.
On the physical side, it is obvious we are in need of repair. Whether it is roads, bridges, electricity grids, levees, mass transportation, airports, etc. we need organized and orchestrated plans. A key reason we did not win the Olympics for Chicago was our infrastructure has become dated. That should be a kick in the pants, but it has not been. The stimulus package helped a little, but this is one area where borrowing money makes more sense. If you are building an asset like a bridge, borrowing to pay for it is OK. Borrowing to pay for operations is not OK which is one of our challenges.
This an area where we can marry several issues as is being done in New Orleans and in communities leveled by tornadoes. We can rebuild with more energy-efficient construction. The federal incentives promote this, we create jobs and community assets are created. This is where public and private money can converge to rebuild America.
Deficits, Spending and Taxes
All of the above is harder to accomplish as we have not only kicked the deficit can down the road, we made the can bigger by less forward thinking decisions. We have a math problem which cannot be solved by subtraction. We need some addition as well. We have to raise revenue as well as being strategic about cutting expenses. Romney, Gingrich and Santorum’s plans will all increase the deficit, so says a non-partisan budget office. They are non-partisan for a reason. We need unbiased people to call things as they see them
Tax simplification and overall increases have to be on the table. As an Independent voter, I want every Republican who signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to not raise taxes to tear it up. Reagan increased taxes five times, George H.W. Bush went back on a campaign promise to raise taxes as it was needed. Clinton raised taxes and cut spending and left office with a balanced budget. However, I find a lot of fault today and then when it occurred, when George W. Bush cut taxes when it was not needed and went against some key voices on this such as Warren Buffett. One of his key economic advisors resigned over the decision. That, coupled with two wars, put us on a perilous journey and truly left us vulnerable. It is ironic we are arguing the extension of tax cuts that were ill-advised when they occurred. I also fault Obama for not jumping on the Bowles-Simpson plan.
We can look at Greece and say that won’t happen here. Per Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in “That Used to be Us – How America Fell Behind in the World We Invented and How We Can Come Back,” it is noted the debt crisis is occurring and will occur in municipalities and states. Harrisburg, PA declared bankruptcy last year. Birmingham, AL did as well. The state of California is teetering on the edge. This is where it will occur. Why – retrenching tax revenue and increased health care costs for employees and retirees? The number of retiree obligations relative to the active work force is a tell-tale sign, as past lifetime benefit promises in lieu of better wages, are haunting the cities and states.
These are the conversations we need to have, but we are not. You will note I did not mention anything about contraception (99% of women have used or use), same-sex marriage (this train has the left the station) or abortion (this has been decided). I also did not mention the President’s country of birth or whether he is a Christian or Muslim. I did not even mention whether Romney is a Mormon. Those issues are irrelevant and, in case of the two toward Obama, only believed in the land of make-believe.
We need to stop all politicians who are discussing these issues and, instead, demand dialogue from our leaders about the issues we need to hear about. To do otherwise and we will start the second half without our best players in spite of Clint’s encouragement. Unfortunately, this is not the movies and Josey Wales or Dirty Harry cannot help us too much. With that said, we do need the courage they have to bring the real issues to the forefront. And, in the words of Josey Wales, “dying ain’t much of a living.”