American Vision: Revised Edition

My mother’s favorite poet was Robert Frost. She kept a book of his poems with illustrations on our old wooden bookshelf in the living room of our house in New Jersey. There were a handful of books on that bookshelf that I would pull down and thumb through from time to time. One was a compilation of photographs of Lincoln. Another was an illustrated account of the Kennedy assassination. Another was the story of our accomplishment of space flight. They were huge books, about half the size of me with colorful pictures, worn dust jackets and coffee stains. She’d gotten them in college in the 60’s. They sat on that shelf for decades. Some of them are still there, though she’s long since passed.

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Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost

I remember the picture of a tree on the page with Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It looked like the tree in my front yard. I would read that poem over and over again. There was something about the end of it that just stuck in my head. The part about the woods, “lovely dark and deep.” And the part about life, “miles to go before I sleep”, twice said.  There was beauty in that described moment of peace. And the realization that it was fragile and fleeting and that there was work ahead that made it more so. One last breath of fog in the cold night air while your feet stay still in the snow. And then it’s back to the business of life. Less beautiful. More permanent.

Life moves on. The future is our only constant. And no matter how beautiful or still or comfortable the peace of now might be, you cannot stay in it. The instant you realize it is the now you’re experiencing, it becomes the past. And you must move on. There’s work to be done.

Elections aren’t what make democracy great. They are a messy, imperfect means to an end. Accountability is what makes democracy great. And elections are the best measure of that accountability that we have to do that thing that is so hard to do. Since the days when we wandered out of the woods and onto the planes and further still over the horizon, the process of choosing who we allow to leads us has been hard, costly and not always for the best. The way we do it in America has yielded strong outcomes for centuries though. But it is not what makes us great. The greatness comes in between. After we choose. After we begin our journey again. We’ve got quite a bit of road ahead of us to cover. We’ve got miles to go. No sleep in sight.

There is a world beyond our current myopic focus. Our politics or the Jihad of a small group of foreign, hateful, religious zealots have distracted us. The world is about to remind us that those things weren’t quite the magnitude of threat we’ve faced in the past. What lies ahead, the rhetorical promise of a new arms race and the rise of an eastern power with enough resources to dominate the world for centuries, are far more serious threats. Threats that will force us to remember a time when Russian field commanders had nuclear weapons release authority for the payloads being placed in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Or when global imperial powers had the capacity to cripple our military with equal or greater military might of their own. And nothing the last president did, or the one before him or the next one is at fault. It’s the ebb and flow of a global species in which there is rarely a singular power that remains singular for very long.

It’s time to pick our heads up. There are sails on the horizon. And we’ve got work to do.

It’s been 45 days since the American people elected Donald J. Trump president. And it’s another 30 until he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. We’ve had enough time to reflect on what the election says about us. And what it says about the state of our political discourse. And what it says about our culture. We’ve taken our deep breath in the cold dark woods. And it’s time to move on. And it’s time to move past the what and why’s of what happened. It’s time to ask the better question. What do we want from a Donald  J. Trump presidency? What do we want for America? The answer is pretty straight forward.

I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want him to be the disaster that would prove secretly delightful to those of us who so strongly opposed his candidacy. That justification can only come with four years of failure. Four years of worse outcomes for the American people. Four years of a weaker country amidst the backdrop of a rising China and a belligerent Russia. I don’t want that and neither should you. What I want out of a Trump presidency is the same thing I would want out of any presidency. Success.

Success is a weak word. It hasn’t done the work. The work of success begins with a narrow vision of what right looks like in the end. And if you don’t have one for America, then you haven’t done the work.  And you don’t know anything about the effectiveness of her direction. And if your vision is 1950’s American, it’s a bad one. Success starts with a vision. So I’ll share with you mine. Because a great 21st century America needs to start moving forward in earnest. A great 21st Century America accomplishes the following, no matter who sits in the oval office or what ideas they have about America and her people:

  • 25 Million new jobs created over the next ten years. China is on the hook for ten million a year. They’re still in catch up mode. We can win with a quarter of that.
  • Balance the federal budget by 2030. If you refuse to accept any other outcome, it can be done. But you are going to have to re-define your reality of taxation and government services. If you can’t, your future is already decidedly less great.
  • Eliminate fossil fuels within 75 years. Not through regulation. Through innovation and a better way. 100 years from now people need to laugh at their grandparents for digging dead things up from the ground and burning them for power. Pay attention to what Elon Musk is doing. And root for him to succeed.
  • A complete overhaul to modernize American infrastructure by 2025. I don’t mean repair. I don’t mean upgrade. I mean build again. Better, more innovative, more American. We win with better things and a better way of life.
  • Manned space flight to Mars by 2035. If it sounds silly, then I’d ask you what happens when a people reach their ceiling? They atrophy, or they blast through it. I’m for the latter. Again, watch Musk.
  • Put science, treatment and doctors back at the center of American healthcare. Get shareholders out of the game. Do that in any sustainable way possible.

That’s not an exhaustive list. You could probably find other things. But it’s a start. And we have to start. That’s what a vision looks and sounds like. That’s what making 21st century America great looks like.  It’s more than a red hat and a snappy saying. It’s hard work.

There’s something refreshing about turning away from the messy footprints behind us that got us where we are and turning towards a goal. It’s cathartic. Because you spend time thinking about what you want. So much of American mind-space for the last 18 months has been focused on what we don’t want. It’s time to move on. And move forward.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who the president elect alienated with his campaign rhetoric or personal behavior, I’m not going to ask you to just get over it. But I am asking you to have a vision for what you want. Not simply what you don’t. And it’s entirely fair to assume that in order to realize that vision, it’s mandatory to build some foundation of unity where Americans aren’t living in fear of each other or the government. And if that can’t be done with Mr. Trump, then step one on the vision, is choosing a new leader. So be watchful. We are a nation of people. But we are a government of laws-laws that exist for the betterment of our people. No one is above them. We didn’t elect a king. Only a president.

It’s time to get going now. Feet moving over the snow again…miles to go before we sleep. Miles to go before we sleep.

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.