Economic Revival Requires a Revival of Our National Community

As the nation's debt deadline approaches, and the political and media gamesmanship in our nation's capital increases in intensity, I find myself thinking more and more about community. The value with which we hold each other, and our relationship to those with whom we share our living space. The political parties blame each other for the stubborn persistence of unemployment, now over 9% officially and over 16% when we count those who have given up on the job market or are underemployed. The Republicans blame the declining economy on over-taxation. The Democrats blame job loss on Republican resistance to additional stimulus. Twice this year the Republicans have been willing to "play chicken" with the president and the nation's well being: first over the budget by threatening a government shutdown, and now by holding the entire economy hostage while threatening to default on our debt. Ideology is dominating debates that should be settled by data, not wishful thinking. People in America need work. Our community has work that needs to be done. It's time to close that loop.

The creation of a global economy and communication network has placed the American economy and our society in uncharted territory. We do not really understand the complex economic, political, ecological, social and cultural forces that drive the world economy. We don't really know the answers to the problems we face. Like FDR during the New Deal we need to pragmatically experiment. We need to learn what works and what doesn't. What collective community responses are needed? What private entrepreneurial forces need to be unleashed? In March of 1933, as FDR assumed the Presidency in the depths of the Great Depression, some of his speeches and articles were collected in a book entitled Looking Forward. At the dawn of the New Deal, Roosevelt wrote:

"The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Looking Forward, chapter 2, p. 51 (1933).

That is of course what we need today. Instead we have a political process dominated by money, consultants, polls and focus groups. Pragmatic problem solving takes a back seat to horse race calculations of winners and losers. Political positions are calculated to build market share and brand. The responsibility of governing plays a smaller and smaller role in the policy positions taken by our elected leaders.

This nation seems to be unable to act as a community and build for the future. We fight wars that we will not pay for, and allow our transportation, communications and energy infrastructure to fall behind our global competitors. Our research universities and scientific capacity remain the best in the world, but for how much longer? The launch of the last space shuttle is a clear sign of an American space program in disarray. Will the $2 or possibly $4 trillion dollars in proposed government cuts now being negotiated destroy the scientific and educational institutions that this nation built in the years following World War II?

The great American middle class is struggling in an economy that can no longer generate sufficient employment to meet the needs of a growing population. We need to experiment with both private and public approaches to job creation. We need to figure out a way to build the infrastructure needed to maintain a dynamic and environmentally sustainable economy. Instead of creative problem solving, all we see in the nation's capital is gridlock and guys with flag lapel pins talking past each other.

Which brings me back to community: Despite the noise on cable news and in the federal capital, I see community everywhere. I spent my July 4th holiday in Long Beach New York, where my wife and I own a small bungalow about a block and half from the ocean. Long Beach is small town America -- a community that has political disagreements, but knows how to come together for the common good. Saturday night was the annual fireworks display (now held a week after the 4th of July). Families line the boardwalk and beach to celebrate America and each other. The city government organized the celebration and on Sunday morning government workers were out in force cleaning up and preparing the boardwalk and beach for the community's summertime enjoyment. Very few question the role played by government in hosting the holiday event and in maintaining the beach and boardwalk, and only a few questioned the costs to taxpayers.

People expect their local government to provide basic services like water, roads, sewage treatment, waste removal, education, parks, fire, police and emergency services. There are lots of local controversies about the costs and effectiveness of service delivery, but typically debates come to an end, decisions are made and life goes on. While sometimes deep conflicts take place and rip communities apart, most disputes are settled through discussion and compromise. People form emotional attachments to their community and to their neighbors and for the most part tend not to demonize each other.

We once managed to do that at the national level too. We called it patriotism and it represented our attachment to an American community. Political opponents found time to socialize with each other and attempt to build connections. We found ways united around national goals. While President Obama has struggled to rekindle that sense of community, he has mostly found a political opposition more interested in de-legitimizing him and his leadership than trying to find common ground. Despite his lack of success, I hope he keeps trying. I think he will find that many people hunger for a sense of community at the national level that mirrors what they have at the local level.

The counterforce of money, consumption and greed without limit should not be dismissed, but the bedrock American value of fairness and justice should not be underestimated either. Many of us saw a small example of that over the weekend as baseball fans cheered Derek Jeter's 3,000th base hit. First, we cheered Jeter (especially we Yankee fans), the quintessential gritty team player who has always focused more on his team's achievements than his own. This is a guy that everyone was rooting for. Then, perhaps in perfect harmony with Jeter's great accomplishment, we see Christian Lopez, the young man who ended up with the baseball from Jeter's 3,000th hit, giving the ball back to Jeter instead of selling it for whatever the market would bring. As Sam Borden reported in the New York Times:

Despite the potential monetary value of the ball, Lopez made it clear he was not interested in profiting from his good fortune. "It wasn't about the money -- it's about a milestone," Lopez said to reporters. "I mean, Mr. Jeter deserved it. I'm not going to take it away from him. Money's cool and all, but I'm only 23 years old and I have a lot of time to make that. It's his accomplishment."

The values represented by Jeter and Lopez and my neighbors in Long Beach are not reflected by the people now making decisions in our nation's capital. My hope is that before these leaders cause a national default, they come to their senses and learn the importance of a national community and a shared sense of purpose. The deficit and the job crises are symptoms of the decline of our national community. They will only be solved when we learn to trust each other as neighbors rather than demonize each other as political enemies.