As I See It: If I Were Wise Enough, I Might Say. . .
February 9, 2009 Victor Rozek
Watching the reawakening of the human spirit, manifesting in the guise of an inauguration, a National Public Radio commentator said it seemed that the new millennium had finally arrived. Truly, there was something Narnian about the event, as if we had parted the coats and walked through the back of the wardrobe emerging in a wholly different world.
Solemn and festive, the 1.8 million freezing celebrants enjoyed and endured a day of firsts. It was as if after eight years of walking down a long, dark, dirty alley, they suddenly turned the corner to find themselves on a brightly-lit, tree-lined boulevard. The cold didn’t matter; the relief was palpable. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert observed: “Mr. Obama has been feeding the almost desperate hunger in this country for mature leadership, for someone who is not reckless and clownish, shortsighted and self-absorbed.”
And now the people had their new leader.
But if Herbert was right about the yearning for competent leadership, why then was Mr. Obama receiving such an unprecedented amount of advice before the election? While pontificating pundits are to be expected, what seemed unusual was the avalanche of guidance and analysis offered by common citizens. Letters by the thousands poured into the in-boxes of newspaper editors. Blogs, chat rooms, political Web sites; from the left and the right countless people weighed in on national priorities, advising the new president on how to right the ship of state.
But why such an outpouring? The easy answer is that there is so much wrong with the nation that people felt they could no longer keep silent. For them, the heart of “change” was the possibility that someone might actually be listening. The deeper answer may be that there was a lot of pent up love for the country seeking expression, and it overflowed in a tsunami of counsel and good wishes. And so I found myself wondering: What would I say were I wise enough to offer advice to a man drowning in advisors. What possibly has not already been said?
After considerable thought, I came up with four things I had not read or heard elsewhere. Broadly speaking, my concerns include the president’s relationship to the people; the economy; the need for fools; and the use of technology.
1. First, I would advise the president to stay connected to the people. There is a phenomenon that apparently occurs after well-intended politicians have lived inside the Beltway for a time. In Washington, they are surrounded by like-minded people; people with wealth, power, and prestige; people who live in a world of favors and agendas. Politicians quickly learn the reality of what can be accomplished and how hard it is to push the boulder up the hill. And in the process, they report coming to despise their constituents who by comparison appear unsophisticated and fickle, uninformed about the issues, and unreasonable in their expectations. Over time politicians become more and more isolated, living in the DC bubble, preferring the company of elites to the bumpkins back home.
What is too soon forgotten is that these “bumpkins” are the heart and soul of the nation; the people that grow the food, fight the wars, and care for the children. The last president did not walk among them, did not listen to their aspirations and needs, did not care about their lives. Not a single sector–either foreign or domestic–improved during his administration; the people were forgotten soon after the votes were counted.
In the company of kings, popes, and prime ministers, surrounded by security forces, every need provided, every command obeyed, it is easy to forget the far different reality of a struggling citizenry. Your job, if I were to simplify it almost beyond recognition Mr. President, will be to create a world to which we the people want to belong. And you cannot understand that world without maintaining close contact with the people in it.
2. Toward that end, you will have to fix an economy that has been plundered like a liquor store in a riot. But it would appear that we are fixing the wrong things. The banks are not the economy, nor are the brokerage houses, nor is the stock market. Economies are driven by demand. At essence, the economy is the collective exertion of millions of workers and unless they have jobs that provide them with discretionary income, the rest of these institutions will collapse.
Beware measuring success by the growth in gross domestic product. The GDP is based on a premise that is both deadly and impossible to achieve: perpetual growth. Nothing grows without limits except cancer, and if it isn’t stopped, it kills its host. Growth is killing the planet and the economic pressure to grow perpetually encourages fraud on a grand scale. Better to judge the success of the economy using a “well-being index.” The economy should work for its citizens; they should not toil to sustain the economy. The measure of your success should be: Are your countrymen happy? Do they have jobs, liveable wages, and affordable housing? Is their air clean and their water drinkable? Are their cities safe? Do they have access to healthcare, and secure retirement pensions as their counterparts in Europe and Japan do? Can their children go to college without mortgaging their futures? Accomplish these things and the markets will follow.
3. In medieval times, it was the fashion for kings to employ a fool, a court jester who could say things to the king for which others might lose their head. So risky was the truth that it could only be spoken to power by a “madman.” But every king needs a fool, and so do presidents. Someone who whispers in your ear that you are not Lincoln, that power is fleeting, and those who shower you with adulation have agendas of their own. Someone who will challenge your importance, question your decisions, remind you of your humanity, and laugh at your foibles. In the words of Andrew Holmes, “It is well to remember that the entire population of the universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.”
4. From space heaters to space stations, computers facilitate the design and operation of an incalculable number of products and services. You referred in your inauguration speech to “the makers of things,” and computers will be the primary tools of 21st century makers. Not surprisingly, you have placed a generous number of recovery eggs in the technology basket, promising to expand broadband access, computerize medical records, and bring computing to the classroom.
But the near-universal use of computer technology has been a mixed blessing. It enables both the visionary and the villain. It permits our telephones to be tapped, our emails to be read, and our movements to be captured on video. Without our knowledge or the opportunity for appeal, our names can appear on “no fly lists,” and “enemies lists,” and “uninsurable” lists. In short, a technology of liberation is increasingly used for purposes of tracking and oppression. The reality is that people born in this century will not know anything resembling privacy. Their lives will be open books, subject to the unethical manipulation of bits. We need an ethical framework that begins to walk back the excesses of the recent past and provides guidelines for the future.
Transparency without accountability is like a beautiful child without discipline. Checks and balances and the rule of law must be restored to the runaway use of computer technology. Give us a code of ethics, Mr. President, and give it teeth. As we have seen all too often, voluntary compliance is another way of inviting avoidance.
That’s it, sir. I’ll just slip this in here at the bottom of the advice stack. I shudder at the grave responsibilities of your office and, as you sort through the mountains of conflicting opinion, bid you remember the wisdom of Sophocles: “No enemy is worse than bad advice.”