“Not many colleges offer Technical Nuttitude,” the baby said as he looked through brochures.
Fresh off his internship at BPI’s state-of-the-art High-Energy Meta Mojo Elucidation Detector (HEMMED) Lab, the baby is excited about that field. He wants to learn how to twirl the gears and pull the levers and push the buttons – except for the dreaded Red Button – and crank out political enlightenment. I’m glad he’s excited, but I also told him to keep his options open. College will open new vistas for him, and he may find interests he hasn’t yet imagined. “Right now,” I said, “your life is full of opportunity.”
He nodded and munched on a macadamia. “And someday I’ll get stuck in a rut, like you?”
I tried not to get grumpy. “I have a brand new opportunity every morning,” I said.
It’s true. Almost every morning I sit down to ponder what I’ll say on the campus soapbox. That starts with a blank page. Often I don’t even have an idea until I start my research on 21st Century Political Nuttitude. I usually find the seed of an idea, but even then the page is still blank. I can take that idea in lots of directions. The story is still full of opportunity, brimming with excitement.
Maybe Thomas Friedman felt that same way when he and Michael Mandelbaum began writing That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented … and How We Can Come Back. The book begins by wondering why America needs six months to repair two escalators while China can build a 2.5 million square foot convention center in only eight.
NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Friedman yesterday, and Friedman pointed to the end of the Cold War as a defining moment:
This problem started at the end of the Cold War. We made the biggest mistake a country and species can make: We misread our environment. We thought the Cold War was a victory and we could put our feet up. In fact, we had just unleashed … 2 billion people just like us; people with our same aspirations, same capabilities. And just when we needed to be lacing up our shoes and running faster, we put our feet up.
We shifted from [the] greatest generation that really operated on what we call in the book ‘sustainable values’ – saving and investing – and we handed power over to the baby boomer generation who really lived by ‘situational values’ – borrow and consume. The baby boomers, I believe, have a lot to answer for. They have not followed in the path of their parents in terms of making the hard decisions, making the long-term investments.
It’s a familiar story. Those selfish baby boomers who actually wanted to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Not a corporate-backed conservative movement that cut taxes, attacked labor unions, and siphoned off the wealth from still-expanding productivity. Indeed Friedman sees U.S. corporations as being silenced:
We are missing the voices of those CEOs in our discussions – national discussions on education and infrastructure – because if they can’t get the workers, the infrastructure, the opportunities that they need here, they can just go somewhere else. And that’s a huge problem.
The fact that the funding cuts for infrastructure have been pushed by the very CEO’s whose voices we’re ‘missing’ seems lost. Instead, the problem is that American workers used to be willing to endure privation and hardship to build great things and we’ve gone soft. The obvious solution? A third political party:
We’re having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election and it’s like they don’t even overlap in many ways. The incentives of politics today – money, cable television, gerrymandered districts – are so misaligned with the needs of the country that they become like a closed circle, operating on their own. What we argue for is an independent, third party that actually can show that there is a huge middle in this country that demands different politics.
Move the cheese; move the mouse. Don’t move the cheese; mouse doesn’t move. So right now, all the incentives of these two parties are to behave in really bad ways for the country. The only way to change that is to show them the [voter] – the cheese – is over here.
Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds like political nuttitude. We already have a political party that supports infrastructure investment and American workers, although Friedman may not know that because the U.S. media rarely let that fact slip to the public. Or maybe he does know. His “pox on both their houses” meme is popular in the Beltway chattering class, and it allows Friedman and others to sound ‘independent’ while they excuse-by-false-equivalence the party and ideology that have starved public investment for decades.
And Friedman seems to ignore what I discover every day: it’s easier to start from scratch than to work with what’s already there. This story started with lots of open doors. Like the baby and the Chinese economy, it was bright with opportunity. But it hasn’t exactly gone where I wanted. I could scrap it and start over, as Friedman suggests we do with our politics. If I scrap it and start over, I’d have a brand new blank page, full of opportunity and brimming with excitement. But the page wouldn’t stay blank, and by halfway through I’d be getting grumpy as I cut this and reword that in search of a satisfying conclusion.
Or – like the Democratic Party – I could work on fixing what already exists. That’s rarely as flashy as a brand new opportunity. But sooner or later most brand new opportunities shift to fixing what’s already there. The rest remain pipe dreams.
Good day and good nuts.