Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: The politics of despair and optimism

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The politics of despair and optimism

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters

The politics of despair and optimism

Last week, I wrote contrasting the patriotism of fear and fighting with the patriotism of compassion and community. This leads us back to a reconsideration of the politics of despair vs. the politics of optimism. When living in troubled and difficult times, it is not wrong to acknowledge the true state of affairs – all the better to deal with it. But, there are unproductive and productive responses to hardship.

First a little whiplash: The railroads of England used to be a marvel. They tied the country together, ran to well-chosen destinations, and ran on time. You could depend on buying your ticket, catching your train, and getting where you were going. 

Goods, services, and citizens flowed easily. Then, in a time of temporary decline, the managers decided to maximize short-term profits. They invoked austerity measures. For a number of years, they repeated a cycle of discontinuing the least-profitable routes. They were somehow surprised when,
not always being able to get where they needed to go, more and more riders stopped using the service. Of course, their business response was to double-down on the service cuts. The marvel, that the railroads had been, collapsed. The railroads reaped the natural harvest of their politics of despair.

Our country faced similar recent political policy decisions. We faced the option of letting our banks and financial institutions collapse all together from their failed risks in taking advantage of deregulation to gamble with other people’s money. This would have totally dropped the bottom out of the American and world economies. Wisely, our government decided that suicide was not the best response to a temporary problem. Also, financial institutions, including Bain Capital, refused to invest in the recently-stressed American automobile industry. An optimistic American government chose to intervene. American car manufacturers were forced to make adjustments, but are now profitable again.

Have you noticed the recent optimism of our neighbors? You’re seeing more people replace their aging roofs and porches. People are starting new businesses or adding inventory. I’m about to buy a new set of tires, instead of taking the risk to drive them bald or deciding to just park that car. Every time we make that kind of decision to invest in the future, it reflects a growing optimism and faith. It also puts money back into circulation, which lets someone else put it back into circulation in a virtuous cycle of recovery.

Some businesses, out of patriotism (or optimism) are also beginning to rebuild and hire. I wonder, how close did some of us get to eating our seed corn? Other businesses and investors are holding onto stunning sums of their record profits. Or these “job creators” are creating jobs overseas. Or both.

While I accept that every business should have some choice in how they decide to maximize their profits, I am disappointed that more top management teams do not take into account the larger and longer-term benefits of circulating their funds in local economies. Optimism could give these companies the hope and faith to invest in America and Americans. Hope and faith is expressed by commitment and action. We must join with our President in a shared commitment to move this country forward.