A couple of announcements caught my attention recently. One was that Tom Freidman of the NY Times and “the earth is flat” fame will be releasing an update of his popular book in August; the other was that widely-followed economist and advisor to Democratic presidential candidates Alan Blinder, who has been one of the more influential free trade enthusiasts, has changed his message somewhat and is now suggesting that the downside impact of unfettered economic globalization will be deeper than we have imagined.
Why did these notices catch my attention? First, they are a continuing manifestation of the phenomena outlined by Alvin Toffler over 25 years ago in his landmark book, The Third Wave, the key message of which is that we are now living in the middle of the third great transformation of the organization of work and society in world history, and there is no escape from it. Second, as will reportedly be well noted in the revised edition of Freidman’s book, while seemingly 90% of our focus is on public policy, that’s not where the action is at all. In fact, public policy is the “brain dead” arena for dealing with this transformation, to wit: there is enormous innovation underway in this country, which is adding unprecedented value and wealth, but none of it is originating in Washington, D. C. and precious little in state capitals. Third, I share Blinder’s concern that the impact of this transformation and the allocation of pain now reaching the affluent white collar sector will produce heightened political action to mitigate the transition costs.
These observations taken together suggest to me that we will need enormous vision and courage in our leadership to avoid short-sighted strategies more directed toward pain protection than the urgently needed market-driven systemic reform in education rigor and delivery, health care finance and delivery, and the re-structuring of retirement finance. Clearly, we won’t get it from the Lou Dobbs wing of the Democratic Party, including House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, which will use Blinder’s recent notes of caution to further their demagoguery against free trade. Nor will it come from Chuck Schumer and his allies in the Senate, who believe that the principles of comparative advantage among trading nations no longer apply in a globalized world. No, this leadership role can only be filled by our next President.
Which brings me to this question—what kind of leader can fill the role that America and the world need? Although many of us probably feel we have already heard enough presidential politics, at least in the unattractive style in which it is presented to us, it’s not too early to get a fix on those qualities we want in a successor to George W. Bush. I will spare you my final critique of President Bush until later, but, suffice to say, the low points of his term in office suggest that we will be looking for a much different type of leader, and that competence might very well be a leading theme. These things seem to run in cycles. I remember Michael Dukakis’ remark during the 1988 campaign that “this election is not about ideology, it’s about competence”, and how far off base he was in that perception at the time. For 2008, it may be a different story. In a recent article, David Brooks suggests we might be in the market for a wily, effective leader, one who has more of the cunning that our foreign enemies have exhibited, and a certain cleverness more than Gary Cooper-like simplicity and virtue. Rich Lowry of National Review thinks in terms of detail orientation, toughness, particularly in judgment of people, and proven management skills.
All of this is well taken and probably on point. But let’s not forget two very important considerations: first, when the new President takes office in January 2009, we will still be a nation at war with an enemy determined to seek out and kill as many of us as possible by whatever means and who represents a form of totalitarianism at least as threatening as those we faced and defeated in the 20th century; and second, as historian Paul Johnson reminds us, America will sometimes need to play Leviathan at the risk of blood and treasure when there is a void in the rule of law, and we do so because we are a country founded on idealism. And in that role, we are the indispensable nation. If we elect leaders who forget these points, competence won’t save us.
As we all gather around the tube each morning to get our daily fix on the world according to Rosie O’Donnell on The View, many of us tend to laugh off her brand of celebrity talk show hyperventilation as grandstanding for ratings or, at worst, the innocent rantings of the lunatic leftist fringe. But when over half of our high school seniors can’t place the Civil War or World War II in the correct half-century, a significant percentage of our twenty-somethings say that their primary source of news is the late-night talk shows, and scores of otherwise credible members of the engineering community actually seem to believe that the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9-11 was a government-directed inside job, we cannot so casually dismiss the pop cultural rantings of a left-wing kook. What we must realize is that this means of communication, along with the “blogosphere”, is a very real, and very successful, element of the strategy of the left. We also must recognize that they don’t deal in the truth, because the very concept of objective reality itself is considered by most of these people and their fellow travelers in the post-modern academic community as a construct of the Eurocentric, white, male imperialist oppressor class. I won’t go nearly as far as Dinesh D’Souza in his book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, which essentially blames the American secular left for enraging al Queda and its leadership to the point of attacking us. However, I do think that an indication of how far apart the opposing sides in the American culture war may be are the answers to the following questions: (1) Who is the greater threat to America, George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden?, and (2) Which represents our greatest ideological threat, evangelical Christianity or Islamic fundamentalism? To the extent that the answers to these questions indicate the assignment of anything approaching a moral equivalence in the choices of a significant number of our intellectual class, our mainstream media, and our cultural icons, folks, we have a lot more work to do in defining and identifying our real enemy.
Speaking of the post-modern left, nothing better exemplifies their approach than the radical environmental movement and their poster boy, Al Gore, who, as reported in First Things, announced in a recent TV interview, “The argument is over”, meaning the argument about global warming, of course. To Gore and his followers, the verdict has been rendered, and anyone who missed the debate or who disagrees with the judgment of the movement is in the same league with Holocaust deniers, or so says Ellen Goodman in The Boston Globe. And from recent pronouncements from some of our top corporate executives, many of them are succumbing to the pressures of the constant intimidation and folding rather than being ostracized by the social elite or having their expansion strategies threatened by the environmental watchdogs. Rather than Gore’s version, the real inconvenient truth here is that meaningful intellectual discourse on this subject has been stifled and worse, the democratic process is again been shortchanged and done great damage as a result. Unless we soon return to common sense on this issue, this will not be viewed as one of our finest hours in terms of the progress of the pursuit of truth, deliberative democracy, and the rule of law.
My reading time has been greatly curtailed lately because of my education reform priorities, but here are some recent books that are worth considering:
*First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice, by Hadley Arkes. The title is a dead giveaway, because this is a classic work of political theory as well as moral philosophy from one of my favorite authors. Very thorough treatment, but accessable.
*The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, by Mark A. Noll. This is a short and very interesting book about the clash between the very different theological perspectives of North vs. South in the years leading to the Civil War, and the significant impact that these theological differences have had on our life together since.
*The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox. This is my current project, and I already know that it will be a good read. It’s pretty long, about 600 pages, but it is very reader-friendly and Fox tells a good story about the development of the Greek and Roman world between about 600 BC and 200 AD. It’s very old history, but it is also our history.