My Biggest Gripe About America, In Black And White

Here you have my biggest gripe about this fine country of ours: Far too many Americans cannot see the gray. Religion, politics, sexuality—it’s always black and white, us and them. And this ridiculously narrow-minded worldview inevitably brings most intelligent discourse to a screeching end.

In fact, because of our perception of disagreement as conflict, and our fear of conflict, we seem to have lost the ability for rational debate almost entirely. When we disagree with someone, we either argue from an emotional place (i.e. Rush Limbaugh) or avoid the topic all together (as in: never talk politics or religion). And through this attack/avoidance method, we manage not to hear the other side at all and therefore go through life without ever observing the gray.   

At a personal level, I find this frustrating and sad, but on a larger societal scale it is downright dangerous and a big part of the reason our political system is so often impotent. Corporate right wingers and like-minded politicians can see no good whatsoever in government, and leftist activists and their counterparts in Congress blame greedy Wall Streeters and CEOs for all that is wrong with the world. It’s always knee-jerk, reactionary ideology on both sides.

And now the worst economic crisis in nearly forever has landed in our laps, and we’ve got a president, an extremely pragmatic individual, doing his best to try and deliver a solution, and all the Republican party can come back with as a response is the same old “government spending is bad, tax breaks are the only way” rhetoric they always sputter.

Well, guess what? Government is not bad. Often, government doesn’t work, but just as often, it does. This is the gray of life, the good and the bad found everywhere. And if we are going to solve this ginormous crisis, then we have got to stop thinking in black and white (i.e. government never works) and start looking at gray alternatives (ways it can).

For example: public/private partnerships. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I stole it from Eric Janszen, president of iTulip and a former venture capitalist and CEO of technology start-ups. In a recent article on reindustrialization in Harpers Magazine, Janzen explains his vision of how public/private partnerships could help us out of our current economic mess.

He says we should “get government out of the way of progress by removing subsidies for uncompetitive companies.” He cites the auto industry. But he also favors breaking up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into parts and selling them on the open market. Eliminating these subsidies “would free up billions of dollars of capital for both the private and the public sector,” he says in the article. “That capital, in turn, could be invested in American infrastructure, such as high-speed railways, ubiquitous high-bandwidth wireless and nuclear energy.

“But we currently have a dysfunctional market dynamic that stops us from making these improvements,” he continues. “It’s a chicken and egg problem: private industry can’t bring more efficient cars (say) to market without significant infrastructure funding to build alternative fueling stations, but meanwhile the delay in these technologies prompts the government to lavish ever more money on the old, inefficient industries in order to preserve jobs. To break that cycle, we need government to actively envision the infrastructure projects we need and then arrange their funding by private investors as well as public money.”

These public/private partnerships—i.e. corporations owned partly by private investors and partly by the government created for the purpose of developing and executing large-scale public works—have already been used to great success in Europe.

He goes on to add more detail as to how this would work, but you get the idea. You toss out the clunky part of government that doesn’t function and you employ what’s left in a manner that does. This is basically what President Obama wants to do as well, even though he and Janzen and may not agree on all of the details. Use what works, toss what doesn’t.

I emailed Janzen to tell him that I appreciate the way he looks at things. And part of his response went: “Unfortunately, most political discourse today quickly devolves into ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ argumentation.” Nice. An “Animal Farm” way to say “us against them” or “black and white.”

All we can hope is that this crisis, and our pragmatic president, will teach us how to be just a little bit reasonable. That it really is okay to be gray and have three legs.

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