Each Thanksgiving, politicians and pundits serve up platitudes about America, much as our grandmothers serve turkey and mashed potatoes: warm, familiar, and heartfelt. Like the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, those platitudes may be as long on comfort as they are short on imagination. Whether we have lived here from birth, are recent immigrants, or are longing for a chance to come here, we know that the U.S. is a nation built on freedom and opportunity. While the platitudes seem more than a bit shallow after four years of financial crisis and recession, the facts actually point to brighter days ahead.
While much of the squabbling in Washington focuses on the size and shape of government and what government must do to rebuild the U.S. economy, the reality is that government has little to do with America’s economic success. Despite stimulus packages and quantitative easing, government action has limited impact on economic growth, job creation, and national wealth accumulation. There is a role for government, and American democracy certainly facilitates economic growth, but the Founders had it right when they created a limited government, replete with checks and balances.
As we seek to recover from our worst economic downturn since World War II, it is understandable that we focus on our weaknesses rather than our collective strengths. It is impossible to argue that unemployment is not too high or that consumer spending is robust or that the housing market is strong. Our current economic suffering is the consequence of the latest financial crash, itself an indispensable part of the economic cycles that are inevitable in capitalism. Beyond our current economic woes, we also need to accept that economic growth in China, Brazil, India, and the emerging markets will outpace ours for the foreseeable future. With their growth comes American opportunity.
Democracy, limited government, individual freedom, and capitalism are the four legs upon which our economic table is built. The Tea Party and Occupy movements reflect, in part, our unwillingness as a people to accept economic and social stagnation. While many commentators deride these movements, we all should acknowledge that they are revitalizing our political and social discourse. Like recessions, these movements are a necessary component of a free and democratic society. We may not agree with them, but we should respect them.
Unequaled Higher Education
The late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, author of the legislation that created the eponymous Pell Grants, once pointed out that America’s strength “is not the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of the education and the character of our people.” Our system of higher education is unequaled anywhere in the world. The alma maters of many of the global economic leaders currently in the spotlight—from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi (MIT) to Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa (University of Chicago), Bank of England Governor Mervyn King (Harvard), Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos (MIT), and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti (Yale)—attest to the strength of U.S. higher education.
Americans and those who aspire to live in the U.S. share a desire to create better lives for themselves and their families. Luckily we have the building blocks to achieve all that we dare to dream. As Warren Buffet wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/A) shareholders this year, “the prophets of doom have overlooked the all-important factor that is certain: Human potential is far from exhausted, and the American system for unleashing that potential … remains alive and effective.”
The U.S. take on this “human potential” is often seen in the proverbial garage from which a tinkerer with an idea periodically emerges with a product or service that changes the world. That innovative spark finds a home in America that is unlike almost anywhere else. To the entrepreneur in America, business failure is not a shameful calamity; indeed, it is often a proving ground for one’s resilience and a crucible in which an idea improves.
In many ways, Thanksgiving and “Black Friday” are fitting analogies for America, telling the tale of how we will rebound from our current economic woes. While we may appear lethargic after seconds of turkey and pumpkin pie, we are nevertheless out of bed before dawn the next morning to seize the opportunity for great bargains. That is the resilience of the American people. So as I sit down to eat my traditional Thanksgiving feast, I will not only give thanks for my family and all the blessings we share, I will give thanks for the great nation that is America—knowing that our best days lie ahead.