Sunday, July 8, 2012

Good, Better, Best... Never Let It Rest

When I was a kid, my mother taught me a little poem by way of encouraging me to be my best.  It went like this:

Good, better, best
Never let it rest
Until your good is better
And your better, best

My grandparents emigrated here from the old country, Mom reminded us.  We were obligated to take advantage of that opportunity.  We weren’t expected just to be good; we were expected to be exceptional.

Our political discourse is littered with the term “American exceptionalism” these days.  Conservatives like to remind voters of the loss of traditional values and its impact on society and our place in the world.  Liberals point out that our greatness was enabled by government and social structures that were the creation of a central government.   

America is, indeed, exceptional largely because it has some inherent advantages.  One must start with geography.  We are the only country in the world with long navigable coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific and we have a natural river system that seems to have been designed to deliver goods to seaports for shipment overseas.  Our land is fertile and our climate diverse enough to produce a vast array of agricultural products. 

Our second advantage is cultural.  The earliest English settlers in the 17th Century were adventurers determined to forge a new world.  The charter for the settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts from James I permitted the establishment of a republican government independent of the crown.  The founders of the United States were grounded in the philosophy of Locke, Spinoza, Voltaire and Adam Smith.  They gave birth to a nation that thrived on independence and achievement. 

Nineteenth century America was marked by a period of laissez-faire government that enabled entrepreneurs to create railroads and the telecommunications, steel and energy industries.  In turn, these developments enabled America to achieve global economic leadership in the 20th Century. 

Like any nation, ours was founded by way of bloodshed as the early English, French and Spanish settlers fought with Native Americans and each other.  But, over a 150 year period, American global hegemony emerged from that bloodshed and through the strategic brilliance of American leadership.  Our mainland was secured and our economic future was insured by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican-American War of 1845 and the Spanish-American War of 1898. 

Oklahoma Land Rush
The founders were also keenly aware of the need for a government to provide opportunity for those less fortunate.  James Madison provided for the right to a free education and public land in the Virginia constitution.  The 19th Century saw an immigrant-driven expansion into the Great Plains enabled by the Homestead Act of 1862 which provided free land to those adventurous enough to claim it.  This egalitarian culture of governance enabled immigrants over our 236 year history to make a better life for their children and in turn drive U.S. economic growth. 

The Industrial Revolution moved bread-winners off their farms and into factories.  That corporations were not the most humane of bosses led directly to the social reforms of the 20th Century.  Laws protecting the right of collective bargaining, worker safety rules and the development of a “social safety net” were government’s response. 

The U.S. military, which had virtually created the steel industry in the 19th Century, evolved after World War II into a “military-industrial complex” (a phrase coined by President Eisenhower) which fostered innovation through scientific research and led to space exploration, the development of the internet and the explosion of the electronics industry.

The U.S. education system – public schools and the university system – produced the best educated workforce in the world.  World War II’s destruction of foreign industrial capacity provided a window of opportunity in post-war America to thrive economically and attract vast inflows of capital investment.

Now, many of those trends are beginning to reverse themselves.  Our education system is no longer producing the best graduates.  The shift in our economy from manufacturing to services has motivated our best and brightest to abandon science and engineering in favor of finance and law.

Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S., which peaked at over $300B in 2000, had dropped 50% by 2010.   Meanwhile U.S. multinationals and investors have increased their investment overseas to new record highs – over $400B in 2009 remaining over $350B in 2011. 

How could a country with so many natural advantages come to this point in the 21st Century?  How is it that our political class sees everything as a battle between two world views as opposed to seeing opportunity to build on our successes of the past?

Today’s political debates over education, immigration, healthcare and the national debt offer no hope of compromise.  There are well thought out solutions to each of these major social and fiscal issues.  They are well documented and understood by leading members of Congress and the Executive branch. Yet, each side of the political divide lives in fear of being "primaried" if they compromise the core principles of the extremes of their respective political parties. 

The political forces at play during our Revolutionary War and its aftermath were marked by fierce philosophical differences as well.  Indeed, there was doubt that the 13 colonies who had defeated the British could sustain as a single nation. Each had its own political philosophy, constitution and currency.  Many in the north advocated for union while many in the south feared the influence of money center banks and a central government.  There are echoes of this debate evident even today.  Yet, with a vision of what our nation could become, the founders compromised for the greater good.

The outcome was an exceptional compromise:  the United States of America. 



  1. Most of the people that I know are centrists who believe we are being led by extremists on both sides.
    Who will lead indeed.

  2. Read and liked your newest Blog. The way I see it, we seem to be missing a common vision of what we desire to become/overcome/create. Essentially people are complacent in their own self interest and the two party system has sufficient followers in each to become a dividing line tug-of-war. When historical America faced times with a common enemy (England/Germany/Japan/the Great Depression/etc.), we rallied as one country to defeat the enemy and take the higher ground. Today, the enemy depends upon which side of the aisle you sit.

    I happen to personally be lead by the Republican agenda for the most part, primarily because of professed cure for high unemployment and because of long term complacency when people are given too many “benefits” by the government for extended periods in lieu of alternative true cures. But, if we had sufficient need for compromise to achieve a greater common rallying mission, both sides would create a compromise and quit arguing the lesser valuable side of the argument which is what is in “my” (my group’s) best interest.

    If the democrats win the controlling interest in the elections later this year, our country will (over years) gradually deteriorate economically until the rallying point becomes desperately needing an alternative economic solution to regain needed economic advantages. If the Republicans win the controlling interest, I am hopeful that they are foresighted enough use the benefits of those outputs from a renewed economic success to invest in providing a platform for the impoverished to obtain the skills and confidence to elevate their standard of living through personal commitment programs and for the middle class to gain competitive advantage in their future by meeting contemporary education needs and programs which encourage a culture of aligning pay with the value delivered. Through the use of appropriately designed reward systems, people can be providing the right alternatives from which to choose which align with their personal interests.

    Thanks for your thinking.


    A. Michael McCracken
    Chairman and CEO
    McCracken Alliance, LLC

  3. Thanks, Mike. I wrote a blog last year called “No Excuse, Sir”. It was about the type of leadership we need in Washington. It is still among the most widely read of my posts (according to Google). The link to it is at the bottom of this email if you’re interested.


  4. With all due respect to Mike, I believe his being led by the Republican agenda has clouded his view of American history.

    Cleaving to an agenda is understandable and probably unavoidable; we all approach policies with pre-conceived notions and political biases. But only when those notions and biases are replaced with facts, do we see that “The American Agenda” is best served, in 2012, by the Democrats, and not the Republicans, in their current form. This may change at some point, but for the foreseeable future, a Republican domination of our country will worsen our situation.

    First, there’s their notion that the wealthiest (millionaires, major corporations, etc.) are the “Job Creators” and deserve all forms of tax breaks and deregulations to allow them to lower unemployment. This notion is being pushed entirely by Republicans and it is absolutely false. They ignore the simple laws of supply and demand. Please show me where a tax break given to a shoe manufacturer, for instance, caused them to hire more shoemakers. Please show me where a tax break extended to an appliance maker caused them to make more washing machines.

    Supply is increased (the making of hats or washing machines) only when a demand sparks their making. Therefore, the true “Job Creators” are largely the middle and lower class consumers. Without money in their pockets to spend on hats and washing machines, those products aren’t made. Demand begins when the middle and lower classes achieve financial power, enabling them to buy things. When they buy things, corporations and their millionaires do well.

    The trickle is UP, not down.

    Second, there’s their notion that “unearned benefits” (whatever that means) are a root cause of economic stagnation. Never mind that Mitt Romney, or George Bush (or Jack Kennedy) earned their benefits???

    In fact, the country performs its economic best when money, education, and the social safety net (“benefits,” Mike) are favorable to the middle and lower classes – hence, the boom years of 1950s-1960s America. The G.I. Bill, strong unions, relatively high taxes on the wealthiest and lower taxes on everyone else – all brought forth what now appears to have been our best years. The rich got rich, but the lower and middle classes got even richer. Income disparity was at its lowest point in modern history. Presidents were Republican and Democrats, Congress the same. Yet, as John’s commentary pointed out, COMPROMISE, rather than polarization, was the force that prevailed.

    Third, there’s the notion that neither Republicans OR Democrats are willing to compromise. Excuse me, but compromise with what? The most ardent Republicans of the 1950s and 1960s – even into the Nixon years of the 1970s (remember – it was Nixon who signed some of the most eco-friendly laws into being) would not recognize the uber-conservative, back-to-the-19th century Republicans of today.

    In virtually every Congressional push, the Republicans, largely influenced by knee-jerk, Tea Party zealots, seem to be falling all over themselves to present the most extreme of right-wing agendas. Then, when even moderate Democrats fail to meet their extreme positions half-way, they accuse them of partisan politics. What?

    Thank you, but I’ll take the Democratic Agenda for America any day. I’ll even take the 1950s-era Republican Agenda for America, as I believe that today’s Republicans come from a very dark, very extreme, very ignorant and selfish place.

    Bruce Scottow

    1. Bruce,

      I try to remain nonpartisan in my posts to this blog. Although my bias shows from time to time.

      Your response is well articulated and logical. I must disagree on one point. The solutions of the 50s and 60s would not generate the same economic results today. The conditions are not the same. Correlation is not causation.

      Ther is no question that high taxes reduce growth. The only question is how much growth should we sacrifice to get the government we want?

    2. John,

      Agreed: Correlation is not causation. And while the exactl solutions of the 50s and 60s may not bring about the same results today, the fundamentals of that thinking remain firm. "Trickle down" economics has never worked and "trickle up" has always worked.

      So the challenge is to find 50s-60s-era structure that fits 21st century realities. As before, that fundamental formula points to government seed money (derived from tazes) that works with the private sector to grow the economy, re-build our infrastructure, and spark new investment in R&D.

      So again, the specifics may have changed, but the fundamentals haven't.

      And there IS a question that high taxes reduce growth, just as there IS a question that low taxes promote growth. The fact that our taxes (personal and corpporate) are at some of their lowest rates since before WWII, that income disparity is at levels not seen since the Gilded Age, and yet we're STILL in the economic doldrums, speaks volumes on that correlation.

      In my view, if we want a have a few rich people living in a third world country (some Asian, African and South American countries come to mind), let's stay the course: drop taxes further, incentivize further corporate wealth and power, privatize our retirement portfolios, fully privatize healthcare, and encourage further out-sourcing of jobs, research and development...oh - and vote Republican.

      I'm sorry if this sounds partisan but as Frank has reminded us below, as long as the Tea Party Tail is wagging the Republican Dog, there is a clear, partisan choice coming up this November.
      Bruce Scottow

  5. John...Appreciated the historical perspective leading to the current state of affairs but especially identified with Bruces's reply. I even agree with the 50's analogy. Though times ARE different, his point is that the fact that the middle class was allowed to thrive and have one then two cars in every garage, and that the government through the GI Bill provided the path to prosperity through education for many of our fathers. The most presient point though, the culture of the three branches of government that encouraged reaching across the aisle and compromise in the Congress, and the respect folks had for the office of President, something that has been sorely lacking these past three years. For those on the other side who complain that George W. Bush was also scorned..well he brought a lot of that on himself through his frequent gaffes exposing his limited cognitive and communication capacities, and his reliance on mean-spirited and misguided individuals like Cheney and Rumsfield to develop and implement a foreign policy and economic disaster we are still suffering from. When the Tea Party tail stops wagging the Republican Dog Tail, we will all be far better off. All Republicans seem to represent these days is unbridled greed and the unleashing of corporations on our precious and limited resources like air and water. They propose cutting budgets to allow the very wealthy to prosper at the expense of all the rest of us forgetting that money from our government not only takes care of the disabled and less fortunate amongst us but provides jobs for all of us. Putting money into roads and bridges and even Federal Buildings provides for carpenters and masons and electricians and plumbers and architects and heavy equipment operators and all the folks who service their machinary and provide the pipes and asphalt and wires and gas and cement and tires and ...well you get the point. Right on Bruce! Great conversations at the CSHHS Birthday. Frank L. Miller