Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Whole World is Watching--and It's Not Pretty


Like an impressionist painting, the political and financial mess that is besieging the U.S. seems much clearer from a distance.

I have spent the last week visiting my son here in Hong Kong where interest in our election campaign and economic meltdown are both intense and very personal. As in the U.S., wealth and jobs have been disappearing here at an alarming rate as the financial crisis that began in our country has spread throughout the world like an epidemic.

I have been hanging out with smart, ambitious young professionals who are really struggling to understand the seemingly bizarre behavior and suicidal choices that are coming from America’s political leaders. They all had the same question:

“How can a country that is so smart choose people who are so stupid to be their leaders?”

It has popped up in one form or another all week long. During that week, we sat together and watched the Katie Couric-Sarah Palin interviews. You can imagine how that went. Actually, no one said much. People were just searching for some explanation that would cause Palin’s candidacy to make sense. They want it to be less outrageous and frightening than it is.

We saw McCain suddenly promise to suspend his campaign (he didn’t) and suggest that his debate with Obama be delayed for no credible reason, much in the way Bush and Cheney were cancelled from the Republican Convention due to a weather forecast. We saw Bush and McCain then strongly urge their Republican followers in Congress to support the Paulson rescue plan. Then they assured Nancy Pelosi and the country that they had enough Republican votes to bring the matter to a successful vote.

We then watched in disbelief as two-thirds of the Republicans voted against the plan, their president, and their nominee less than 24 hours later. They precipitated a market panic that cost investors $1 trillion in the U.S. alone in just a few hours. After the vote, GOP leaders said they had been all set to vote for the plan they had agreed to support but then Pelosi got them all upset with her speech so they decided to get even with her by trying to destroy our financial system.

It really makes one proud to be an American.

So how do we get back on track? We need to stop defining ourselves and our political leaders in black and white terms based on party and ideology and instead look to be guided by truth and wisdom without regard to the source.

People are labeled and label themselves as either being on the Left or the Right, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, for higher taxes or against them, for more regulation or for free markets, and so on.

This labeling has dumbed down both the level of conversation and the people themselves.. Our leaders have trapped themselves in ideological boxes which keep them from making intelligent decisions.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s important for people to have values and to stand for something. But they also need to be pluralistic and anxious to learn from and incorporate the best aspects of positions from the other sides because life is just too complex and nuanced to be an ideologue. As with most things, pluralism is the key to success.

In business we call pluralism using “best practices.” In sports we call it “cross training.” The top performers in every field use the approach to get even better at what they do. We desperately need it in political discourse because we just can’t afford to act this stupid any longer. There’s way too much at stake.

We can’t afford to continue the dishonest luxury of blaming “Washington” for our problems. In a democracy, we elect leaders to act on our behalf. If they decide that we need to fight wars, improve security, provide health care and social security, build bridges and roads, then we should insist that they make us pay enough in taxes to pay for them. If we don’t want the stuff they are buying on our behalf or it we can’t or don’t want to pay bill, then we should let them know or replace them.

Free markets are preferable but we can't afford to be stupid.

If our financial system is too important to the welfare of our country to be allowed to fail, then we need to create and enforce regulations to make sure that we never again come close to the position we find ourselves in now.

We need to preserve unfettered free market capitalism but only in those areas where success is desired and failure can be tolerated. That’s the essence of the entrepreneurial system that has made our country great. But at the same time, we can’t have Congress approving huge deficit spending and allowing system-threatening practices to run amok on Wall Street and then acting outraged at anyone but themselves when the taxpayers have to intervene to prevent a collapse.

When a criminal escapes from jail because the guard fell asleep with the cell door open, it’s the guard’s fault. Criminals are criminals—they do what criminals do. Wall Street is greedy. That’s what Wall Street does and is rewarded for. That’s why we have guards and regulators and a president and Congress to maintain control. When the guard falls asleep and things get out of control, the outrage should be directed at the guard and he should feel terrible about letting us down. We have seen none of that. On Capital Hill, it’s the Congressmen who fell asleep at the switch who are expressing all the outrage.

Where is the pluralism, the outreach, the self-examination? Is there anything about this that is complicated or hard to understand?

Viewing it from halfway around the world it all seems pretty simple. The only real question is if we as a country are ready to start acting like grownups or if we’re going to keep blaming Washington, illegal immigrants, liberals, conservatives, Wall Street, mortgage lenders—everybody but ourselves—for our problems. We know what we need to do. The only question is if and when we’re going to make it happen.

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