Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
June 6, 2016
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.
Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
Helen Keller (1880-1968)
Recently my wife and I drove past the house in New Hampshire where I grew up. It looked lonely, in need of repair and, to anthropomorphize the place, hesitant about the future – a metaphor for our nation, with its flagging leadership, crumbling infrastructures and doubt that the future can be as good as the past – a past, admittedly, more idyllic in memory than in reality.
When my newly-married parents came to the house in 1938 the country was mired in an eight-year-old depression, Europe was on the verge of falling to the Nazis, and Japan had occupied large swaths of China. With a future so uncertain, it would not have been surprising if my parents had decided that prospects were too bleak to bring another person into the world. Instead, the first of nine children was born eleven months later – about as positive a bet on the future that a couple can make! Educated people (and my father had a Harvard education) don’t bring children into a world for which they have no hope.
Yet, today, amidst living standards our ancestors could not have imagined, we seem to have lost confidence that the future can be better than the past. Why? And why have we, as a nation, reached a nadir in terms of national confidence, while our leaders are at an apex in terms of supercilious arrogance? Is there a connection between the descent of the former and the ascent of the latter?
As a nation, we should be more confident. We should be able to look back over the past hundred years, with pride and relief in equal measures. The great domestic issues of segregation, civil and women’s rights were addressed and largely resolved in the last seventy-five years. Geography, abundant natural resources, a literate electorate, a penchant for innovation and hard work, and a democratic political system have made our nation the most powerful (and most decent) the world has ever known. What, for example, would have happened had Communism spread to the United States, as looked possible in the two decades following the Russian Revolution? What if Hitler had prevailed in Europe in the 1940s? What if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War in the 1980s? What would have happened to liberty and individual human rights? Would standards of living be as high? Would declines in global poverty have been as rapid as they were? Would there be a United Nations, or a World Bank? What would have happened to the world’s great centers of learning – to the Oxford’s, Cambridge’s, Harvard’s and Yale’s? Would the environment be as clean? Would science have advanced for the benefit of mankind, or would it have been used to sustain dictatorial governments? Those rhetorical questions and their answers should give confidence to Americans that their country is exceptional. America is not perfect and hubris is a sin, but confidence, which stems from self-reliance, a belief in one’s capabilities and faith that the nation’s laws will protect personal and property rights, is critical for a bright and sustained future.
Yet, that is not where we are. Employment continues to be a problem. While the unemployment rate dipped below 5% last month, the labor force participation also fell to to 62.6%, the lowest since the 1970s. Adjusted for inflation, median household income, at $57,243, is 1.3% lower than it was in 2008. Over the past thirty-five years, with the exception of the mid 1980s and 2003-2005, there has been a steady decline in new business formations. Regulation and licensing requirements, designed to protect consumers, have in fact safeguarded incumbents from competition. Despondency, anger, divisiveness and frustration have become common. Confidence suggests a willingness to invest for the future – to sacrifice some of what might be consumed to day so that tomorrow will be better. Instead, culturally, we are focused on the moment. We live in a “I want it now” culture. “Selfies,” Instagram and Snapchat define our times. Confidence requires a belief that innovation and effort, in time, will bring personal rewards. It demands that people be opportunistic, to not think of themselves as victims. Those who are resolute, determined and self-reliant, need less government, not more. They acknowledge that rules must be set and enforced, but they know that the players on the field are individuals who compete. Such people are at odds with the concept of dependency, something principally critical to those in government who wish for cradle-to-grave security.
Keep in mind, it is in the interest of government bureaucrats to foster this addiction to “big brother.” It is their way of expanding personal power and influence. It has helped lead to the situation we face today – a country divided into two parts: a cronyistic elite in Washington that includes government employees, big business leaders, lawyers, agencies and educational institutions, all of whom are dependent, in one form or another, on the public teat. As well, there is a growing class of Eloi-like people who have become dependent on government. On the other side of the divide, there is the broad middle class – blue and white collar workers, and small and mid-size business owners, the country’s largest employers. Among them are a smattering of concerned conservatives, a group into which I cast myself. These people are more likely to be found in small cities and towns, in middle America. The latter feel alienated. The former, empowered or entitled.
Government cannot mandate that confidence returns. But leaders can lead. They can remove hurdles, such as regulatory and tax blockages. Good leaders instill confidence. Franklin Roosevelt gave people hope. Dwight Eisenhower, perhaps the best presidential leader, manifested his abilities in herding disparate, egotistical generals during the Second World War. Ronald Reagan, with his “Morning in America” theme, instilled optimism, after a dismal, prior ten years. Government can can encourage long term investing, for people as well as businesses.
Politicians should stop using the IRS and the EPA to punish political opponents. They should recognize that leadership is about encouraging others to work to their utmost. They should use their influence to stop universities from ideological discrimination. They should work with schools and parents to understand that learning from mistakes is natural, that equality applies to our rights under the law, and they should be honest about the fact that economic outcomes will never be equal. Success is a function of drive, endeavor, desire and ability. They should acknowledge that it is the aspirational, self-reliant and hard-working who drive progress and change.
We are a people who historically believed we could achieve anything: We carved a nation out of the wilderness; we created a government unique in its liberties and justice, with protection of property and other rights; we fought a civil war to end slavery and preserve our union; we engaged dictators in Europe and Japan, and won; we put a man on the moon; we are now faced with a deadly battle against Islamic extremism. We should recognize our short-comings, but also understand that we have, on balance, been a force for good. We should acknowledge past mistakes, but not grovel in apology. And, we should be conscious that we can always do better.
It is confidence that is needed, individually and in the nation. Ideas can move countries. Many of us were raised on The Little Engine That could, by Arnold Munk. We recall our mother’s reading the engine’s words, as he pulled his train over the mountain: “I think I can, I think I can!” And he did. Virginia Woolf once wrote, “They can because they think they can.” A nation is forged from the efforts of risk-takers who believe in themselves. It is not molded by bureaucrats in capital cities.