Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Excelling at Mediocrity?

A provocative opinion piece in the Harvard Business Review last week asked the question "what is America still the best at?" The answer, surprising from the pages of a mainstream, establishment, pro-business publication, was that America excels at mediocrity. The author, Umair Haque, quickly notes that he is not anti-American, and claims that he would love to hear what other people think this nation is still good at. But his own view is bluntly clear. And, viewed through the lenses of the financial-business complex, he may have a point.

Haque suggests the following thought experiment. Imagine that you are "really, really rich," someone perhaps richer than "the routinely opulent 1%," maybe someone in "the eye-poppingly decadent .01%." What part of your life would be American? Haque suggests there may be nothing. You'd probably "drive a German car, wear British shoes and an Italian suit, keep your savings in a Swiss bank, vacation in Koh Samui with shopping expeditions to Cannes, fly Emirates, develop a palate for South African wine, hire a French-trained chef, buy a few dozen Indian and Chinese companies, and pay Dubai-style taxes." Is this right? 

I imagine that to the extent one defines success in economic terms it is. Haque is surely correct that on all these fronts, American products and places are not at the top of the heap. And one should expect that a writer in the Harvard Business Review would see the world in terms of money and goods. It is also true that this is exactly how many analysts of the American situation evaluate where we are as a nation. It is to a great extent exactly the economic features of American capitalism that people all over the world -- from illegal immigrants to citizens of nations just emerging from under dictatorship -- look to when they think of the United States. In the eyes of so many -- writers and columnists, critics and friends, politicians and voters -- it is our economy that gets the most attention; for them, "it's the economy, stupid." To a disturbing extent, that is the way most American citizens evaluate their nation, the performance of their politicians, the value of their lives.

But surely there is something wrong with this. Doesn't this focus on money, on economic success, on business and products, miss much that helps define America? After all, if you want economic success -- at least for the benefit of some (and that is about all we have really achieved in the United States, after all) -- there could be no better place to live than contemporary China. But how many of us -- even how many of our money-obsessed fellow citizens -- would really trade the sputtering economy of the U.S. for the boom of China? For, while far too many of our fellow citizens fail to take notice of these facts, along with the boom in China serious restrictions on political liberty: free capitalist trade is hedged round by major limitations on what you can say, what you can read, and what you can use political processes to achieve -- just ask Google. In economically thriving China one gets what scholars call rule by law rather than the rule of law. Constitutional democracy, which with all its flaws, protects a range of freedom and provides a level of citizen control over the government, is totally missing in China. 

The point is that where the United States really excels, where it is exceptional rather than mediocre, has to do with the fundamental principles and practices of constitutionalism. This nation is not special because of its economic success; in fact, that very success may cut against the very things that make this nation unique and admirable. Those constitutional principles and practices that make up our identity as a nation, as I have argued many times before, are in jeopardy. They are at risk from a pervasive lack of thinking encouraged by many features of contemporary American life. Those principles and practices are belittled (sometimes under the guise of being praised) by talk radio hosts -- and their television counterparts -- who chant and shout but rarely engage with issues or with those who might think seriously about issues. Those principles and practices are challenged by cynical politicians who resist thought and appeal mind-numbingly to the prejudices, falsehoods, and whims that seem to intrigue the electorate. As one commentator has noted, if we are dissatisfied with the politicians we have (and most of us are -- why wouldn't we be?), we must blame that body of people deemed "likely voters," for it is their trivial, biased, thoughtless reactions to which the politicians appeal. Of course, blaming the voters for the state of American politics is in part to blame the victim; the ultimate responsibility for the demise of real politics and its replacement with the circus we see today belongs to many, and it makes some sense to seek out those who benefit from it when assessing blame -- and American voters do not benefit from politics as practiced in the United States today. 

There are other culprits, too. As I have noted many times before, the principles and practices of constitutional democracy are undermined by schools that (claim to) prepare students for the job market but not for citizenship, that place testable knowledge ahead of the dispositions, attitudes, and commitments essential to a democratic republic, that overemphasize math and science to the detriment of those fields of study that really develop the constitutional citizen. And the principles and practices of constitutional democracy are trivialized by pervasive and insistent emphasis on money, goods, commercialism, and success defined in monetary terms. In other words, the very focus on money and material stuff can, when carried beyond the concern for basic decency of living conditions, eat away at the vitals of constitutional democracy -- and has done so.

So Haque's argument, while accurate on one level, illustrates a deeper truth on quite another: the truth that all this worry over economic success, all this preoccupation with money, threatens to combine with other factors to destroy those things at which this country really excels, however perilously. The eighteenth century writers who participated in the founding of our nation had a term for this focus on money, economics, and self-interest: they called it "corruption." And they recognized that when corruption spreads among the citizenry it destroys civic virtue, undermines citizenship, and prefaces the failure of republican government and the rise of tyranny. What Haque doesn't notice is that the real mediocrity that threatens us has nothing to do with suits, vacations, and wine. It has to do with the decline of what was once an excellent constitutional democracy.