This Sunday's Meet the Press was themed "The Politics of the Economy: What's Holding America Back?" which featured a discussion between an uncharacteristically wide variety of thinkers across the political spectrum. It is, in part, a discussion we desperately need as we're thrown into this political turmoil between the Tea Party Republicans and the rest of the country. We are struggling at this crossroads to decide what kind of country we want to be.
In the past, I've had many disagreements with Thomas Friedman about the role he believes my generation should play as we begin to take over the country. But today, much like that fabled broken clock, I found myself in much agreement as Friedman spoke about the differences between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom Generation. He argues this problem began not in 2008, instead it began after the Cold War ended in 1980:
"We had a generational shift. We went from the Greatest Generation which the philosophy basically was "save and invest" and we are still living off of their saving and investing. To the Baby Boom Generation whose philosophy turned out to be "borrow and spend." And we've really shifted from a generation born in The Depression, World War 2, and the Cold War, these were serious people. They wouldn't think of shutting down the government for a minute, ok. To a generation basically that is much less serious. We've gone from basically the values of the Greatest Generation, which my friend philosopher Doug Simon calls "sustainable values." Values that sustain. To a Baby Boom Generation whose values are situational values. Do whatever the situation allows. You put them all together and I think you really account for a lot of the hole we're in right now structurally."
Friedman goes on to say, that instead of being the drivers of innovation and a world leader that, we spent the 2000's "chasing the losers of globalization instead of the winners," referring to our wars across the Middle East.
Friedman discusses the "Five Pillars" which enabled us to grow and thrive as a country and as a government for 200 years.
"We didn't get here by accident. As a great country. We actually won at every historical turn. How did we win in every historical turn? Because we had a formula for success. That you can actually date back to Hamilton but you certainly see it in Lincoln. It was five pillars: basically educate our people up to and beyond whatever the level of technology is. Whether it's the cotton gin or the supercomputer. Immigration: attract the world's most talented and energetic people. Third, infrastructure. Have the world's best infrastructure. Fourth, have the right rules for enchanting capital formation and risk taking and preventing recklessness. And last, government-funded research. Put those together, stir, bake for 200 years and you get the United States of America.
If you take all five of those, David, and you look at the last decade, which we call 'the terrible 2's,' possibly the worst if not the worst decades in American History. Education (makes a downward gesture). Infrastructure (makes a downward gesture). Immigration (makes a downward gesture). Rules for Capital Investment, how'd you like that sub-prime crisis? (makes a downward gesture) Research and Development (makes a downward gesture). So all five of our pillars of success have been weakened. That's the underlying theme here. And that's what we've got to be looking; that's what the President has got to be out there defending."
Earlier in the program, Friedman said that he believes there are two types of countries: HIEs and LIEs. In Friedman vernacular, that means high imagination enabling countries and low imagination enabling countries and details the ease of building a product and bringing it to market.
"Forget developing and developed. . . . what isn't a commodity is this (Friedman says snapping his fingers meaning ideas). If you look at the countries that are thriving today, look at Israel - start-up nation. We're not going to bail our way out of this crisis. We're not going to stimulate our way out of this crisis. We're ultimately going to educate, imagine, and invent our way out of this crisis."
Unfortunately, it appears that the Friedman is putting the cart before the horse. While the solution is no doubt going to be innovation, with the weakening of those five pillars consistently by conservative politics, where will these educated, imaginative and inventive people going to come from?
In a totally separate portion of the program, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her son, Lt. Joseph K. Goodwin, talked about being part of the generation that began after the Cold War and the impact 9/11 had on what is now termed the Millennial Generation. He believes 9/11 presented a unique opportunity that was missed by leaders. After Pearl Harbor, our country was thrown into a great war in which the entire country was invested. Women immediately took over the work force as every man in the country became a soldier. Children collected rubber bands to be melted down; women drew "seams" on the back of their legs so that silk production could be redirected to parachutes instead of hose; food, gas and even clothing was rationed. In short, everyone sacrificed and contributed towards the war effort.
After 9/11, America was never asked to sacrifice or contribute anything. Lt. Goodwin says this is the reason that he feels we're have so much debt and financial troubles now, because we charged the wars on our credit card. As Friedman would say we allowed the situational values of our leaders enact a policy that cost us so much that our entire country stands on the brink of both an economic and even identity crash. Lt. Goodwin believes if we as a country had been asked to sacrifice as much as they were in WWII that maybe we wouldn't be here.
If Lt. Goodwin believes that 9/11 won't be what defines a generation, perhaps the Millennials can decide to define themselves as the "Ideas Generation" that Friedman says is so needed to build us back into a stable economy and a world leader. In a recent piece by Mike Hais and Morley Winograd, authors of Millennial Makeover and the new book Millennial Momentum, the two authors argue that indeed this generation -- which will comprise more than 1 in 3 adults by the end of the decade -- can be the drivers of this economy if given the tools and authority to do so. Instead of the "taking to the street" philosophy that Friedman has advocated in the past, perhaps he can get on board with more of an innovative bandwagon.