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A Matter of Character

In his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama eschewed partisan politics and stretched for the heights of statesmanship. Frustrated in his most heart-felt passions by the institutions that foment mistrust of government, his program of political renewal is built around appeals to cherished notions of our national character. While composed of practical steps – among them redistricting and campaign finance reform, voting rights, and extension of public education by two years – its illustrations were drawn not from  isolated instances of specific lives transformed by those benefits, but from abstract descriptions of relationships transformed when we act from hope and trust.

Obama supported the authority of his prescription by outlining the results of seven years of quietly doing what was possible while his opponents trumpeted doom. This includes enhanced international cooperation to isolate and weaken the agents of violence, improved terms of trade to protect workers and the environment, enhancement of personal security with health care reform, and revitalization of America’s manufacturing and energy sectors.

His restrained rhetoric is set against a collection of voices that trumpet conflict. This is not limited to the field of Republican presidential nominees – the growing strength of the Sanders campaign is fueled by harsh rhetoric targeting the financial elite. I believe that the popularity of those voices reflects the sense that for the average American, security is precarious. This is supported by polling that reveals that as regards their condition, 49% of Americans have become more angry over the last year.

As wages stagnate and costs rise, inevitably every choice faced by a working family is fraught with consequence. Any single error can set us on the hard road to poverty. In that state, our natural desire is to make our choosing less difficult – in much popular political rhetoric, to remove the impediments imposed by the state. Unfortunately, this logic appeals to the interests of those that siphon financial energy from the system. One of the Koch brothers, after the federal investigation of climate science racketeering by Mobil-Exxon, appeared in public to state that in many ways he is a liberal – he believes that businesses are most successful when the individual worker is free to make his own choices. As “success” to Mr. Koch translates to “higher profits,” what history has shown is that a family man will accept lower wages when facing competition from a younger, unburdened candidate. “Freedom” as understood by Koch translates to a lack of security that eventually pits every man against his neighbor for the benefit of owners.

In his book The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment, Geoffrey Kabaservice argued that the American century was birthed on the battlefields of WWII. For the first time, the American elite went to war, and came back appreciating the strength of the brotherhood that leads men to sacrifice their lives in service. It was this brotherhood that motivated the Veterans’ Acts that opened college and home ownership to the lower classes. And it was the clawing back of those gifts by that generation’s children that steadily weakened the lower classes as we entered the 21st century.

The fragility of the post-war Golden Age must lead us to ask: is Obama right? Is our national character one of quiet service, or a narcissistic struggle for privilege that slowly grinds down the weak?

Against the cynicism of the realist, Obama marshaled the words of the man that prophesied his presidency. In his last public address, Martin Luther King, Jr. promised his audience that they as a people would see the Promised Land. Obama borrowed not from that speech but from King’s Nobel Peace Prize address, in which the prophet heralded the ultimate victory of “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

That may sound like another flimsy basis for policy prescriptions, but it actually leads to an analysis that shows the inevitability of our exit from this era of untrammeled selfishness. Throughout history, when economic activity expands into a new scale (from the city to the state, from state to nation, from nation to globe), those managing the expansion are able to erode the rights of those that created the technologies and products that allow the expansion. They do that by transferring knowledge to impoverished labor markets (or by importing cheaper labor). By selling goods back into the originating society, owners are able to reap enormous profits.

What ultimately happens, however, is that as wages equalize, poor workers motivated by the hope that they, too, would achieve the rights of their richer cousins gain the courage to organize to secure those rights. Having played out the cheap trick of producing in cheaper labor markets, the elite is brought under ever increasing pressure to actually increase the value of labor through organizational strategy. They then confront the truth that a competent and creative worker is the best source of operational improvements, and that personal security is essential to avoid fear that distracts her attention.

This has been played out again and again through history, in each of the transitions listed above. We now face the last transition to the global stage, and growing economic instability in  China suggests that the cheap trick has just about played itself out.

So if the morality of Obama’s appeal doesn’t resonate in the pragmatic mind, I believe that it yet reflects the wisdom of historical experience. His prescriptions are the investments that we need to make now to ensure that when the burden of poverty is leveled, we as a nation are prepared to lead the charge into a future of common accomplishment safeguarded by international compacts of economic and environmental justice.

While the elite may create panic with rumors of “one world government” and “black helicopters,” the past proves that the lower classes will eventually recognize their common experience, and organize to ensure that the government that creates the rules by which power is allocated will do so in a way that ensures that power servers that greater good, rather than the whims of the elite. All the lower classes need do is to marshal the courage to believe in the commonality of their experience (which is the root of all truth) and recognize that when they invest in each others’ power (loving unconditionally), they strengthen themselves.

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