Friday, March 20, 2009

"Born as a commercial republic"

One of the main arguments of this blog has been that the entrepreneur and entrepreneurship should be the content of a campaign of ideas to champion classical liberal ideals. I have also argued that entrepreneurship should be the means by which the ideas are disseminated. Meaning that entrepreneurial ventures (for-profit and non-profit) should be created to wage a campaign of ideas using the symbolism and narrative of the entrepreneur to transmit the vision and values of America, the liberal commercial republic. This is a campaign of ideas that takes place at the cultural level, that inspires people to act and create in ways that make us more resilient, more able to creatively respond to adversity. Now read the following excerpt from a recent column by David Brooks through the framework of the above.

In short, the United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It’s addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise. After periodic pauses, the country inevitably returns to its elemental nature.

The U.S. is in one of those pauses today. It has been odd, over the past six months, not to have the gospel of success as part of the normal background music of life. You go about your day, taking in the news and the new movies, books and songs, and only gradually do you become aware that there is an absence. There are no aspirational stories of rags-to-riches success floating around. There are no new how-to-get-rich enthusiasms. There are few magazine covers breathlessly telling readers that some new possibility — biotechnology, nanotechnology — is about to change everything. That part of American culture that stokes ambition and encourages risk has gone silent.

We are now in an astonishingly noncommercial moment. Risk is out of favor. The financial world is abashed. Enterprise is suspended. The public culture is dominated by one downbeat story after another as members of the educated class explore and enjoy the humiliation of the capitalist vulgarians.

Washington is temporarily at the center of the nation’s economic gravity and a noncommercial administration holds sway. This is an administration that has many lawyers and academics but almost no businesspeople in it, let alone self-made entrepreneurs. The president speaks passionately about education and health care reform, but he is strangely aloof from the banking crisis and displays no passion when speaking about commercial drive and success.

But if there is one thing we can be sure of, this pause will not last. The cultural DNA of the past 400 years will not be erased. The pendulum will swing hard. The gospel of success will recapture the imagination.

Somewhere right now there’s probably a smart publisher searching for the most unabashed, ambitious, pro-wealth, pro-success manuscript she can find, and in about three months she’ll pile it up in the nation’s bookstores. Somewhere there’s probably a TV producer thinking of hiring Jim Cramer to do a show to tell story after story of unapologetic business success. Somewhere there’s a politician finding a way to ride the commercial renaissance that is bound to come, ready to explain how government can sometimes nurture entrepreneurial greatness and sometimes should get out of the way.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lincoln as Commander in Chief

Historian James McPherson has a new book out that looks like it would be a good read for people who are interested in grand strategy and strategic thinking and is now at the top of my wish list: Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. Here's an essay on this topic by McPherson in the Smithsonian Magazine:

When he called state militia into federal service on April 15, 1861—following the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter—Lincoln therefore faced a steep learning curve as commander in chief. He was a quick study, however; his experience as a largely self-taught lawyer with a keen analytical mind who had mastered Euclidean geometry for mental exercise enabled him to learn quickly on the job. He read and absorbed works on military history and strategy; he observed the successes and failures of his own and the enemy's military commanders and drew apt conclusions; he made mistakes and learned from them; he applied his large quotient of common sense to slice through the obfuscations and excuses of military subordinates. By 1862 his grasp of strategy and operations was firm enough almost to justify the overstated but not entirely wrong conclusion of historian T. Harry Williams: "Lincoln stands out as a great war president, probably the greatest in our history, and a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals."

Monday, March 9, 2009

No outrage zone

I'm more than a little burned out on outrage and feeling betrayed right now. I'm just not interested. So when Republicans point out how liberal Obama is, I just kind of shrug my shoulders and think "the Republicans should have governed better":

The stock market has been tanking steadily since his election, but public approval for President Barack Obama remains high. And this despite the fact that his carefully composed centrist stance during the campaign has been replaced by an economic policy that is at least as strongly liberal as FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society, if not more so.
Why don’t Americans feel more betrayed, or at least more wary?

How can you expect me to be outraged at the Democrats when this is how Republicans governed when they recently controlled Congress and the White House:

George W. Bush rode into Washington almost eight years ago astride the horse of smaller government. He will leave it this winter having overseen the biggest federal budget expansion since Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven decades ago.
Not since World War II, when the nation mobilized to fight a global war against fascism and recover from the Great Depression, has government spending played as large a role in the economy as it does today.
Mr. Bush already is the first president in history to implement budgets that crossed the $2 trillion a year and $3 trillion a year marks.
Federal spending grew from $1.9 trillion in 2000 to what will be at least $3.4 trillion in 2009.
Economists say the best way to measure the size of the federal government is to look at spending as a percentage of the total economy, or gross domestic product. And by that measure, Mr. Bush has increased spending more dramatically than any president since FDR, whose spending on the New Deal and World War II will likely never be matched. During his 12 years, government ballooned from 8 percent of the economy to 41.9 percent.
By that measure, federal budget numbers show spending under the Bush administration rose from 18.4 percent of GDP to 22.5 percent - a 4.1-point increase - and could end up even higher.
The only presidents to approach that level of growth were President Carter, who grew spending as a percentage of GDP by 1.5 points, and President Ford, who grew it by 1 point. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton all decreased spending relative to the overall economy.

Given this track record it is hard to take Republican criticism of Obama seriously. Not that there aren't legitimate criticisms to be made, but Republicans have no credibility to make them. As a result...

Large swaths of the electorate have stopped paying attention to Republicans, he [Sen. McConnell] said.

Wash. Post

And rightfully so. Republicans need to rebuild their credibility with the public if they want the public to take them seriously. If we have learned anything over the past 15 years or so it's that it is a very bad idea for either party to control both Congress and the White House. And so I would like to see the Republicans win Congress in 10. But the Republicans are in an awkward situation. The Republicans need to persuade people that they will govern better than the Democrats, but the memory of how they governed last time around is fresh and is not going to be flushed down the memory hole. If Republicans try to say that they learned their lesson and they are getting back to their true principles, this will rightfully be dismissed as the cynical maneuver of a party that is willing to say anything to get back into power.

Whatever opposition strategy they come up with this is probably not the way to go. If you want credit for the successes then you have to also accept responsibility for the failures:

Conservatives and Republicans aren't synonymous, he [David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union] said. Conservatism didn't lose the election; Republicans lost it, he said: "If this were a gathering of Republicans, they would be down and have every right to be down. They were repudiated."

Wash. Post

I've seen variations on this theme since November. Conservatives and Republicans aren't the same thing; it was Republicans who governed badly not Conservatives therefore Conservatives bear no responsibility. If this is true (and there is some truth to this) then what conclusion can we draw? What this means is that Conservatives aren't in charge of the Republican Party. So, if after 50 years Conservatives can't achieve hegemony within the Republican Party, why would anyone believe that they can achieve hegemony within society as a whole? Apparently, the Conservative Movement, rather than being the dominant ideological force, is nothing more than an ideological faction within the Republican Party that has no power to control how that party governs. The Conservative achievements have proven to be superficial and easily overturned. The politics of the next few elections cycles will be interesting to watch. The Conservative moment is over but the Republican party should be able to harness the energy of opposition and ride it to electoral success. What we are seeing from the Democrats though is the last gasp of 20th century industrial age managerial liberalism. When I look at the Democrats I see "New Deal re-enactors". Over time we'll see that approach proven to be inadequate to our circumstances. This is a really good time for the development of ideas. Don't try to salvage the old ideas in their age of decline. Rather develop the new ideas that will govern the next 50 years. And don't dissipate your energy being outraged and feeling betrayed, rather channel your energy into something creative. I don't want to spend the next 4 years in a state of perpetual outrage.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

CNBC: Fount of Wisdom

And so it goes...

Well the school that I attended last year and where I worked up until last week has shut down and filed for bankruptcy. This doesn't surprise me, I had a hunch months ago that this was a very real possibility. Aside from the personal impact on me (I'm outta of a job, they still owe me for my last 2 weeks, and I'm supposed to get a variety of lifetime benefits including studio and equipment use, continuing ed and others) this is a lesson in business. Here was a successful family-run business that endured for 42 years, surviving economic crises in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s. And then a couple of years ago they were bought by an international financial corporation and in 2 1/2 years was run into the ground and is now bankrupt. Terrible management, bad customer service, didn't treat employees well. A lot of the things you read in articles and books about business seem like cliches and common sense, but then you see a situation like this and you realize that sometimes there is wisdom in the cliches. There really is no substitute for good customer service and being passionate about your product. This business was bought and managed to be a "plantation" investment, as something to be exploited rather than a business to be grown and developed in cooperation with its customers. I learned a lot about audio and video editing, camera operations, master control ops, and audio performance all of which I plan to put to use in a variety of ways, particularly in my own business aspirations. I also made back my entire tuition by working there, and most of the time I was paid to run the equipment, which means that I was getting paid to practice and improve skills. So that's that. And on we go...