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In a very visceral manner, there is something deeply troubling to me about the country these days. The dismal economy is taking a toll on Americans in a way unseen since perhaps the days of the Dustbowl. I recently flipped through John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Is it me or is there a resurgence of Okies in America? Far too many people remain out of work. Far too many people fear for their jobs. Far too many people have lost hope and lost confidence. They no longer can look in a mirror without questioning the meaning of their entire lives. They sense judgment in other people’s eyes as they are forced to swallow their pride and put out their hand. First it is from their friends, then their community and finally, their government. In the words of John Steinbeck, “Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”
A recent front-page story in the New York Times recounted tales of once proud conservative Americans in Minnesota. They were the type who never would support taking entitlements. They do now. The affect such charity on their souls is palpable. These are the same sort of Midwesterners of which Steinbeck wrote. They were guilt ridden and unsure if they would ever get off the dole. They qualify for Earned Income Tax Credits. Their pride is crushed as they accept school lunches for their children. Said the Times article, “…they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.”
Some might call these entitlements a gravy train. In many cases, that is true. In the very same article a man described people who paid for their $400 tattoos with government disability checks. Ironically, the sister of that very tattoo artist was receiving disability payments and living in an assisted living facility.
Governor Romney had to remove his foot from his mouth when he said that he did not worry about the poor in America because they had an effective safety net. Crude as the remark sounded; there is a good deal of truth in that statement. There are many comprehensive programs to deal with the poorest among us. Here is the interesting fact, however: the poorest in America, the lower quintile, are receiving a far smaller share of entitlement spending than they did in 1980 when they received more than one half of entitlement spending. It is down to about one third. The middle quintile, those proud members of blue collar America, has actually seen their share grow by fifty percent.
What that tells me is that the poor remain so but are being joined by middle class families sliding down the scale to meet them in despair.
Ironically, statistics show that support for conservative Republican runs higher in States where government benefits outweigh taxes. The opposite also runs true. Liberal Democrats are favored where the outflow of taxes exceeds payout. Nobody can fully explain this phenomenon. What is clear, however, is that the majority of people who are forced to accept these payments would rather be working for what they need rather than extending their hand for a government check. They recognize the paradox of taking for themselves today while burdening their children with debt.
This brings us back to the subject of many of our conversations over the past year. The economy, job growth and the role that the Federal government can or should play in creating an environment that supports growth. Whether one loves or hates the corporation, business will drive growth for its own survival. It will do so wherever the environment for that growth is fertile.
The government cannot stop business from trying to remain in business. Government must lead, follow or get out of the way. While small business is the “canary in the cave,” so to speak, large business is the tail that wags the dog of small business. They control the vast majority of manufacturing jobs in America and drive small businesses to produce. They have the capacity, given the proper incentive, for determining the fate of those remaining jobs and the fate of those offshored already. Some indicators are leaning towards relocating some more highly technical manufacturing out of China. Given a proper environment many of them can come back to the United States.
Lack of talent in the American workforce will prove to be our Achilles Heel if we do not start getting the right people into technical pipelines. There is a group of manufacturers in Massachusetts who are taking matters into their own hands. They are Manufacturing Vigilantes. They see their future vitality directly connected to a steady influx of machinists, tool and die makers, CAD programmers and technicians. The vocational schools have not been successful in promoting manufacturing careers. These careers have an average pay in Massachusetts of $1500 -$2500 per week. That is a nice piece of change. These businesses have realized that they cannot afford to wait for government to solve their problems so they are willing to go it alone.
Nationwide, there are 600,000 open positions in manufacturing. Last count, some 19 million people are under or unemployed. The multiplier effect of filling those jobs would be to create perhaps additional 2 million more. In short order, there will be a steady influx of veterans either returning home from war or being involuntarily discharged under new budget guidance. This fresh crop of dedicated and intelligent people should be the ones targeted for placement in our manufacturing positions.
The New ‘Okies are everywhere. The economic dustbowl is very real. It is forcing contrarian behavior in our middle class ethos.
Steinbeck also said, “I know this… a man got to do what he got to do.”
The monthly jobs report came out this week and it reflects an increase of 140,000 jobs. Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? Well, 140,000 jobs is less than this economy requires every month to offset the new job hunters that enter the marketplace. So, how did the unemployment rate go down then? The sad truth is that 315,000 people decided to stop looking for jobs. By the way, new jobless claims topped 400,000 for the last month but that data is not included in this month’s unemployment figure.
The economy is in a mess and increasingly we turn towards Congress to divine a solution. But who are these people to whom we turn? What are their qualifications to transform an economy? Where are their credentials to lead in business? How have they earned the right to speak with authority on the subject of directing our economy?
Let’s take a look at a few of the Congressmen in Massachusetts who have been self-proclaimed defenders of the economy; the fathers of economic recovery. There is Richard Neal, a 23 year incumbent who made his way to Congress via the City of Springfield as Mayor, as City Councilor and assistant to the Mayor. He has a degree in political science. He has taught some high school courses early in his career but I can’t find any evidence of experience that might provide insight into running a business, even a corner bodega. Verdict: career politician.
Then there is Congressman Jim McGovern. His career has been completely contained within politics. He has a degree in Public Administration. He was active in the Presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern (no relation). He was a Congressional aide to Joe Moakley of Massachusetts and successfully ran and won election to Congress in 1996. I heard Mr. McGovern speak this week before a council of manufacturing executives. He said he originally campaigned as a proponent of manufacturing in the state and the country but admitted that when he actually went to DC, he had no idea what he was talking about. I suspect that he has no better idea today than he did in 1996 or he would not have supported the legislation that has wrought havoc on the economy. I have no evidence that Jim McGovern has sold lemonade from a roadside stand no less understands the complexities of global enterprise. Verdict: career politician.
One more favorite is surely Barney Frank. He earned his degree in law at Harvard but never seems to have used it. He was a political aide then a Massachusetts legislator before ascending to US Congress. That is 40 years of politics and, again, there is not a hint that Mr. Frank has developed even the tiniest bit of business acumen during that time. Verdict: career politician.
Perhaps you are detecting a pattern here in the Commonwealth that we value our elected officials as politicians. And why not? They bring home the bacon, don’t they? Think Big Dig, that pet project of another famous Massachusetts politician, Tip O’Neill. He parlayed a $2.8 billion dollar project into something big and hideous that will cost, according to the Boston Globe, some $22 billion dollars. Tip O’Neill got involved in politics at age 15 when he campaigned for Al Smith. Verdict: career politician.
The Massachusetts democrats have a very long history of grooming its politicians seemingly from political puberty. What it has got us is a group of careerists bent upon advancing themselves politically at any cost and without any business experience. Nor is there is not a veteran among them. They know well how to service constituents with benefits but they know not about service to a higher cause. We don’t need another Big Dig or a highway repaving project to get us out of this mess but that is the usual litany of public works projects proposed to stimulate the economy. It is formulaic of old school politicians; formulaic of ways gone by; formulaic of failure.
So what is the new formula? It must include people who have lived an American Life: a life filled with trial and tribulation with a job that requires them to add value every day. I want them to know what it is like to take a position of financial risk. I want them to have a sense of sacrificial service to country. In short, I want to send a person to Congress who is more like you and me than like Richard Neal, Jim McGovern or Barney Frank.
There is a golden opportunity in Massachusetts to put in a career citizen in the new Fourth Congressional District, a person like you and me. That seat will be open when Barney Frank retires next year. When the New Age of Massachusetts candidate emerges they will require a full court press from people like us to put people like us, career citizens, into Congress from Massachusetts.
I met an American Idol this week. Actually, he is more of an American Icon: Gene Kranz. He was the Flight Director during the golden age of American space exploration that included all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. He led the flight control team for the first lunar mission when Neil Armstrong landed with just 17 seconds of fuel to spare. And it was he who heard the famous words uttered by Jim Lovell, Mission Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13: Houston, we have a problem. And it was he whose determined leadership and team spirit provided the ultimate response: Failure is not an option.
Mr. Kranz and I shared breakfast together and talked like two old pilots are wont to do, using our hands as much as our mouths. We swapped stories. His were far more interesting than mine. There is no mission more interesting to debrief than Apollo 13. His story was succinct and captivating. If you are of my age, you probably remember it well from memory or from the movie of the same name so I won’t go into detail here.
What I want to talk about are his comments regarding spaceflight, our national will and our tolerance for risk and reward. Let me start by reading the wonderful inscription that Gene Kranz wrote for me in his book.
“Inspired by a brash, young and articulate President, we rose to the challenge and won the war for space.”
That brash, young and articulate President was John F. Kennedy. He said,
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
That war was fought by engineers who averaged 26 years of age; using a hundred “computers,” real people with slide rules and graph paper instead a laptop; designers who invented new alloys and developed new metallurgy to carry man into space; and intrepid explorers who all risked their lives and some who lost theirs in an effort to fulfill the destiny of mankind to seek new frontiers, this one in space.
President Kennedy committed us to meet not only the challenge of space but the “other things,” too. They were different times back in 1962. We were in Cold War with the Soviet Union; we were at the precipice of expanding the war in Vietnam; the Cuban Missile Crisis was just in front of us; and we had successfully led the planet from the rubble of a World War. We had the best and we had the brightest talent in the world upon whose shoulders we could support an entire nation and lead an entire world. There was a lot on our plate.
We met great challenges with the courage and confidence that springs from a determined national leadership, a strong national identity and a frontier spirit. Each challenge is measured in terms of risk versus reward. America was a risk taker and a reaper of great rewards.
I told Mr. Kranz that I became a Navy pilot in hopes of becoming an astronaut. He wondered aloud, “what will we become if our children can’t dream of being an astronaut?”
What has become of us? We are no longer risk takers. We have traded our frontier spirit for the living room couch. We shield our children from competition: no dodge ball; no tag; no losers. The richest among us no longer create things of value. The poorest among us no longer have to work.
In the absence of a manned space program, we are shutting down large chunks of our space infrastructure. We are discarding thousands of engineers and interrupting the steady stream of knowledge and experience that we toiled so long and hard to earn. We are abrogating the highest of high technology to other countries whose own sense of national identity calls for bold and brash leadership. We beat the Russians to the moon and now we hitch a ride into space from them.
These times call for brash leadership in America. If we are ever to reemerge as the preeminent power on this planet and resume our leadership of the free world, then we must stake our claim on new frontiers and new challenges that inspire a generation to work hard and to engage our very best talent in its successful pursuit. Lofty goals and high ambition must be met with the sweat of our brow with our shoulders to the wheel. America’s destiny has always been to lead.
Gene Kranz is no longer the brash, young and articulate man of 30-something who led mission control during its’ finest hour. But age has not diminished his message that bold leadership and accountability mitigate risk and leads to ultimate reward.
Are you listening Mr. President? America, we have a problem and failure is not an option.