Best Intentions

The Vision

That’s how it starts. That’s how anything you do on purpose, that matters, starts- with a vision. The vision isn’t the work or the good breaks or the tough luck or the temporary successes and failures that you wander into along the way. The vision is the end. The end is the point. The end, is everything.

The Beginning

December of 2007 was where the vision started for me. I was staring out the window of a sprawling corner office on the top floor of the Merrill Lynch building in downtown San Diego. It wasn’t my office. It was the branch director’s office. I was waiting for him. I had bad news-I thought.

I’d been working in the financial industry for about two years. I was new, but doing pretty well. By the summer of 2007 though, I was worried. We limped through August with a sharp dip in the market that I hadn’t experienced before. It added uncertainty and stress-a notion that there were things in motion that were beyond my control. That was new for me. I was used to war. What you couldn’t control in war was often final. This was open ended, somehow more frightening. The housing market was starting to show cracks. There were concerns about the capital structure of the financial sector as a whole. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I knew we were in trouble, only that I was suddenly aware of the existence of trouble, when perhaps before, I wasn’t.

To be safe, I affiliated in the Navy reserves that summer to help minimize the risk for my family. That’s what I did before Wall Street. I served. At the height of the surge in Iraq, I figured it was still a smart bet. I had a wife, two kids and a mortgage and there was danger out there that worried me more than war.

That December, I was recalled to active duty. That was the bad news-I thought. I told my director. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t. The really bad news came later for everyone in that building. Within a year Merrill Lynch, in business for over a century, would be bankrupt. Within 18 months, I would be in Iraq. The America that I tried to assimilate into in 2005, after two tours in Operation Enduring Freedom, no longer existed. The free fall was on.

The stock market dropped 50%. Unemployment raised 100%. Real estate property values dropped by a third. Property foreclosures spiked 40%.  We were spending $15 Billion a month on war and losing 75 service members a month to combat. Two of the big three automakers, Ford, Chrysler, GM, the industry that built modern America, went bankrupt. Dozens of financial services firms representing hundreds of years of business and trillions of dollars of assets went under. Of the 11 largest bankruptcies in American history, seven happened within an 18 month period starting in March of 2008. The president, George W. Bush, had an approval rating of 25%, three points higher than the lowest ever recorded, one point higher than Nixon when he resigned. 83% of Americans believed that the country was heading in the wrong direction.

Globally, over $34 trillion of wealth was destroyed in 2008 and 2009. That’s twice the size of the entire economy of the United States. Gone.

Those are the numbers and historical facts. They mean little to most people though. What matters much more was the impact on their lives. For me, it was bad. The company I worked for went bankrupt. The industry I worked in folded. I dropped out of business school and went back to war in Iraq to support my family.  I left a four year old, a two year old and a four month old at home with my wife, in my house that was now worth a little over half of what I paid for it. Things were bad, not just philosophically, or morally. Things were bad materially. Lives were worse-many were ruined.

That’s the hole that America was staring out of in 2008. We weren’t staring up at a mountain to climb, to ascend to a different peak above where generations before us toiled to take us. We were staring out of a deep, dark hole, up at where we once were. We needed a vision. That’s how important things start, remember?  A view of what the end would look like if we all just agreed to start. The vision that gets you out of a hole isn’t necessarily the same one that gets you to the top of the mountains you climbed before. That one looks like strength and achievement. The vision you lean on when you’re in a hole, is hope and change. That’s the vision we got.

The End

So what did the end look like?  2,835 days into his presidency, President Barack Obama’s administration has overseen drastic change. I know what I’m about to say will be argued against heartily. There will be anger and disagreement at the facts and data I’m about to deliver. In advance of that, I’ll add two things. One: This data is accurate and inclusive and not different than the same economic data used to show the dire circumstances we were once in. It’s from original sources-as is. I know some of you still won’t believe it so I’ll offer my other point. The reason you won’t believe it is the point of the rest of this essay.

Here’s where we are. Unemployment has been cut in half. The stock market has more than doubled. American corporations have never been more profitable. 20 million people have healthcare that didn’t before. The auto industry just had its most profitable year in history. We are no longer spending and deploying large occupying forces to active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The man who planned and funded the 9/11 attacks is dead. We found him in an allied country. We flew a team in that allied country without permission, raided his home, killed him and dumped his body in the Atlantic Ocean like he was a Decepticon.

Right about now, you may have stopped reading and started qualifying all that data with points of your own about how they don’t tell the whole story. Go ahead if you must. You’re not wrong. It’s not the whole story. But even if it were inflated by 100%, it would still be one of the most drastic economic recoveries in history. So try to push on, because there’s more here than just a cheer-leading exercise for the president.

So, that’s where we are. Much better then we were eight years ago.  My family? Much better too. As are most of the families I know. There are bad things too, like wage stagnation, and ISIS and Donald Trump. But I emphasized the things that people 100 years from now are going to look at and assess to understand the impact of the Obama administration on America. Whether or not he’s the reason for it is a different question. But it’s fairly impossible to argue that we are in a worse place today then we were when I looked out that window on the 32nd floor of the Merrill Lynch building in 2007. The vision we were given then was hope and change. When we think about the end we hoped for, now that we can see it, in a material sense, in the ways that make American lives better, we’ve realized the vision, perhaps even better than we had any right to expect. Things need to continue to get better. We’ve not finished the march. But things are better. It’s not close.

The president’s approval rating is over 50%-not bad for a second term. Somehow, over 70% of the country believes we are moving in the wrong direction though. 2008 perhaps, feels a lot further away and better than the reality. Which actually takes me to my point. It’s not that I believe that President Obama is miraculous, though much of the trajectory of measurable data during his presidency actually is. My point is something else. It’s this: If you have a burning disapproval for our 44th president, 100 years from now, no one is going to understand why. And in absence of understanding, they’re going to assign a reason to it. It’s what we do. And that reason, if I had to predict it based on current trends, will be racism. And that’s not fair. Fair criticism is one of the most important responsibilities of a democratic populous. And we don’t get any right now. So, I’m going to do something to help and provide my own.

First, I’d like to add a disclaimer. I’m a fan and supporter of the President-mostly because I’m a fan of all of our presidents, while they’re in office. They’re on my side, and at one point, I even worked for them. But beyond that, the message of this president resonates with me. And his personal conduct has been exemplary. I believe that most of the social change that he’s ushered in was well over due and I believe that he oversaw one of the more important-all be it imperfect-financial recoveries in our country’s history. That’s the way I see it. As usual though, the way I see it is but a fraction of the story.

I have decent, intelligent, friends that I respect, that can’t say the words Barack Obama without a grimace. It’s not just that they disagree with him politically-though they do. It’s more than that. They can’t stand the idea of him. And they’re not racists. And I fear that we haven’t done the work to understand why. If we do though, we might find that we come across the term generous orthodoxy.

What is generous orthodoxy?

If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, his books Blink or The Tipping Point or Outliers or anything else he’s written, you may also be a fan of his podcast Revisionist History. Like most things he produces, it’s fantastic. This past week he introduced me to the term generous orthodoxy while I was in the middle of struggling to answer the question of why reasonable, non-racist, intelligent Americans can’t stand our president despite what most would agree is at least a “serviceable” effort in office.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, generous orthodoxy is a term coined by 20th century theologian Hans Frei. It means to seek the useful middle ground of generosity -being open to change-and orthodoxy-being committed to tradition. These are Gladwell’s words, not mine.  But they grabbed hold of me tightly.

He goes on to argue that the only true way to convince an orthodox group, one rooted in tradition, to be generous-open to change, is to show them that you actually care about their way of life, the way it is-not just the way you think it ought to change.  The idea is that even though you are driving for change, you are willing to acknowledge the value of what it is that you are going to change and acknowledge that you owe your very existence and your position to effect change, in some way to what that group represents. As only Malcolm Gladwell can, he uses seemingly disparate examples like a Mennonite pastor cast out of his profession for marrying his gay son to his partner or a black student at Princeton protesting the name of the overtly racist Woodrow Wilson to make his point. I won’t give it all away, you have to listen to it. It’s important stuff. But what I will tell you is that it occurred to me, halfway through his message, that he was actually talking about the greatest failure of the Obama presidency.

Remember now, I’m a fan. But all presidencies have their failures. Some are worse then others. This particular failure is nuanced. Because it’s not a failure of policy or tangible outcomes. Not all of his policies were winners of course. And the tangible outcomes aren’t perfect, but they clearly don’t warrant outrage-to reasonable people that is, at the level that any of us who’ve ever dared to say something positive about him in public forums have witnessed. But there’s definitely a failure here. It’s a failure of generous orthodoxy. The president and his supporters have effectively delivered the message of generosity-change.  But we didn’t spend much time acknowledging the orthodoxy. And that’s a problem. I’ll explain.

There’s a whole population of Americans that don’t give a rip about health care and gun control or marriage equality. It doesn’t make them right. But it also doesn’t mean that their entire culture and way of life is wrong. And I think, somewhere along the way, here in America, those of us sympathetic to progressive causes have forgotten the value of orthodoxy. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in what’s wrong with the groups that don’t share our point of view-the pockets or racism, the religious hypocrisy-that we’ve forgotten what’s right about them.  We’ve forgotten what we owe to our orthodoxy.

The heartland of America is a place where family and faith are still the center of the community. Those are good things, no matter what. It’s a culture where fathers and sons and daughters spend time in the outdoors, learning how to hunt and survive in the rugged territory their father’s father’s fathers settled. Those are good things. They value service to country and patriotism, and personal liberties and hard work. Those are all good things. Because most of them are good people who love their country and fellow man. They’re people who have made America, along with the bold intellectual progressives of the rest of the country. Without both, we would not be America. The push and pull of that debate has been making us strong since Jefferson and Adams quarreled about the roles of government. But somewhere, we’ve forgotten it. And that’s a failure because it makes it hard for us to get things right. And even when we do, it doesn’t seem to feel like we’ve gotten it right because someone, somewhere is being left out-the orthodox or the generous.

It’s the danger of losing that balance. And it’s failure that didn’t start with this administration. But when your vision is change-generosity-you bear the burden of balancing the orthodoxy.

This is what happens when you don’t: One side, focuses only on orthodoxy. And in doing so, does things like claim that President Obama is a foreign born Muslim who founded ISIS. The other, focuses only on generosity and it doing so labels all not in violent agreement with the change, a racist or a bigot. Neither is right. And neither is fair.  And no one a hundred years from now will understand that nuance. They’ll look at the data. And the wars that ended or started. The territory gained or lost. All of that matters. But those things are really just outcomes of a people in motion. It’s the lives and attitudes of those people that matter most.

So how do we find the balance?

I’ll take a lead from our 43rd President, George W. Bush. The fact that I’ve given credit to -W-, Obama and Malcolm Gladwell in the same essay shouldn’t be lost on you, if you strive to find the balance of generous orthodoxy.  A few weeks ago, at the heart wrenching memorial service for the eight slain Dallas police officers he gave us a hint.

Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”

He’s right. And he’s saying in his own words, our failures are not acknowledging the values of others. So ask yourself, what happens when we focus on the others “best intentions”?  The answer is the sweet balance of generous orthodoxy.  We’ll forget that message a thousand times again as we have forgotten it a thousand times in the past.  But as long as we wander back to it from time to time, we’ll be alright.


2 thoughts on “Best Intentions

  1. Your attempt to be even handed still yells out Liberal policies are right and every other option is wrong. Failed “wars” on hunger, poverty, drugs… had great expectations but sank because the regulations or add ons have destroyed the disired(?) results. The future will tell if it’s not revised, whether President Obama is as his opponents say, or as the supporters claim….or somewhere in bewteen. I’m hoping for the last, no sugar coating or mud slinging, but if he is found to be what you and likewise mindsets project then we will all be in good shape, if not we will see the truth eventually. I hope….


  2. Sean,
    While I disagree with different aspects of your recent blog it is a well presented analysis.
    From reading Apache Wars I am reminded of the stark failures of Government and the imperfections of man unfortunately becoming evident when presuming to tell others what is best for them. It offers the basis from which to examine the on going tension today throughout the world between government and the governed. Nowhere is change in that relationship occurring more than in America.
    A thread through your well written articles is the point that progressives somehow know what is best for others which underpins the progressive gov’t polices that have historically failed the governed throughout history leading to among other things wars and poverty. It is in fact the reason progressives do not value or understand orthodoxy and, importantly, disdain those for whom orthodoxy is important.
    This disdain is evident in the current president, the democratic nominee, and in the policies each represent.

    Liked by 2 people

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