McCain Obama


A European friend taunted me (and other bloggers) today for having nothing to say about the Obama victory. And of course I do have something to say.  It's my job.  (And in any case, I'm a chatter box.)  

Both Obama and McCain are in my opinion deeply honorable, admirable men.  So it was win-win from this anthropologist's point of view.  In addition to which, Obama is going to set many changes in train, and that is always interesting.  We are going to get to see what the systems(s) does under new and very different leadership.  Finally, Obama will accomplish social good and that's, er, very good.

But for someone who loiters at the intersection of anthropology and economics, there was a very plain difference between these two men.  They play out the enduring collision between culture and commerce.

Judged from the point of view of contemporary culture, McCain was as if from another planet. Right down to calling everyone "my friends" at the very moment he wanted to persuade us that he is not an old-style Washington politician.  (Does anyone else use this language?)  I understand the counter-argument.  When you have served your country as long, as bravely and as honorably as John McCain, you get to call the crowd anything you want.  It would be inauthentic to do otherwise.  

On the other hand, every time Senator McCain had a chance to address himself to something that resonated with contemporary culture, he didn't and plainly couldn't.  He is a creature of Washington, through and through.  And Washington doesn't understand culture, especially not the FCC and the Supreme Court, to judge from recent events.  This may be us it should be but let's be clear.  You cannot make yourself a compelling presence in our world unless you resonate with other parts of this culture.  Now, god knows there is right way and a wrong way to resonate and the last thing we want to do is to diminish the dignity of this man with suggestions that he go the painful route of Warren Beatty's performance in Bulworth.  But no one thinks this is a good idea, hopefully, not even Warren Beatty.  Even when McCain talked about being a "maverick," as he often does, he never managed to come anywhere near the term as it is now used in the new media, new markets, enterpreneurial sense divined so well, for instance, in Polly Labarre's book. 

We take for granted McCain understands how to make markets work.  But who knows even this may be unwise.  He is the guy who wanted to float mortgages.  On the other hand, we may assume that he knows that markets do better when you leave them alone.  (If only the government hadn't interfered with the sub-prime mortgage market.)

To get to Obama we have to cross the intersection of anthropology and economics.  (I had cross-walks and a light installed.  Recently, accidents at this corner have been horrifying!) Obama enjoys the advantage of belonging to a community that is now vastly influential. African Americans have made extraordinary contributions to fashion, movies, music, sports, and popular culture in the last 20 years. We might say that this wave helped get him to the White House.  And he is apparently a student of popular culture.

But if he gets culture, it's not clear he gets commerce.  It's not clear he understands that the best way to produce wealth is to stay out of the way of the marketplace.  Indeed he appears possessed of that favorite conviction that we can only do good by commission (doing stuff, passing laws, getting in there and fixing things).  What he does not appear to grasp is that, when it comes to markets, politicians do their best work by omission, by staying out of the way.  

May I say how strange it is that Republicans and other capitalists have yet to learn how to tell this story. It is so often their message, you would think by this time, and especially after Reagan, this would not be so very difficult.  

The larger question is whether Obama is a friend of the self organizing, emergent powers of the American economy or its enemy.  At this point we don't know.  Which is to say this quote from Drucker could go for him or against him.  

Innovation and entrepreneurship are thus needed in society as much as in the economy, in public-service institutions as much as in businesses.  It is precisely  because innovation and entreprenurship are not “root and branch” but “one step at a time,” a product here, a policy there, a public service yonder; because they are not planned but focused on this opportunity and that need; because they are tentative and will disappear if they do not produce the expected and needed results; because in other words, they are pragmatic rather than dogmatic and modest rather than grandiose—that they promise to keep any society, economy, industry, public service, or business flexible and self-renewing. 

This might be precisely the way to describe the way Obama means to go about reform.  But there is some cause for uncertainty, not least becomes he comes from a university and a social service background where people are inclined to get in the way.  

But let's read on.  Drucker (now of course deceased and speaking to us via a book published in 1985) would appear to argue the case for caution. 

“Planning” as the term is commonly understood is actually incompatible with an entrepreneurial society and economy.  Innovation does indeed need to be purposeful and entrepreurship has to be managed.  But innovation, almost by definition, has to be decentralized, ad hoc, tentative, flexible.  Indeed, the opportunities for innovation are found, on the whole, only way down and close to events.  They are not to be found in the massive aggregates with which the planner deals of necessity, in the difference between “The glass if half full” and “the glass I half empty” in the weak link in a process.  By the time the deviation becomes “statistically” significant” and therby visible to the planner, it is too late.  Innovative opportunities do not come with the tempest but with the rustling of the breeze. 

This is another way of saying, perhaps, that even if Obama is prepared to use the particular genius of American problem solving (that entrepreneurial approach to things), he cannot launch such a thing from Washington.  He's plainly smart enough.  Clearly, he is a gifted strategist and tactician.  I think the election tells us that.  But we shall have to wait and see if he possesses the real American gift for problem solving and his prepared (and permitted) to put it to work.  


Drucker, Peter.  1985.  Innovation and entrepreneurship.  New York: Collins, pp. 254, 255.

For more on LaBarre's book, Maverick's at work, go here.


Thanks to Jens Karl Kilgenstock for the prompt.  

17 thoughts on “McCain Obama

  1. AJ

    Grant, for someone who understands the value not only of data and statistics but of context, meaning, and truth (in the scientific and absolute senses), the argument that government has no role to play in the economy is a wild leap to conclusions. Government cannot make companies successful, but they set the ground rules, foster encouraging environments, and help to protect consumers from the excesses of the “free” market (lead in children’s toys, melamine in baby milk, Russian mafia running oligopolies, tobacco companies quashing reports linking smoking with cancer…or any of the myriad horrors of the Industrial Revolution).

    To say that government’s best role is to stay out of business altogether is an ideological one, not a provable truth. For instance, how to explain the success of Quebec’s high-tech sector in attracting international talent? Subsidized tuitions help produce an educated workforce, socialized healthcare takes a huge burden off the employer, and the government itself invests in new ventures through its pension fund.

    In America, don’t the basic and applied science discoveries made in government-subsidized university laboratories benefit all? Where would we be without Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, etc…not to mention direct government agencies like the CDC, National Institute of Health, the US Department of Agriculture and all their various research projects?

  2. Tom Asacker

    I seriously doubt that Obama will put his faith, and legacy, in the hands of government to execute strategic plans. I’ll bet Buffett is advising him otherwise.

    Any way, it is leadership and planning that have been so sorely lacking. Where is the free market incentive to rebuild bridges, road, and levees, and reform the educational system, the health care system, the energy infrastrucsture, etc. without government “stimulus?” If it’s there, and I’ve missed it, please point it out.

  3. Rick Liebling

    Grant, I think the election of Barack Obama is going to keep people like you in business. So many dynamics of American culture are going to be tested, challenged, flipped and discarded. Companies are going to need people like you (and hopefully me) around to help them make sense of the changing landscape. I’m especially interested in seeing what effect Obama has on African American pop culture, which as you elude to, is to a great degree general American pop culture.

    I’ve just posted something on this on my site: The Rebirth of the Cool, Obama, marketing and pop culture (please forgive the self-promotion).

  4. Cheryl

    You, as an anthropoligist, have no professional expertise for making the following statements:

    “But if he gets culture, it’s not clear he gets commerce. It’s not clear he understands that the best way to produce wealth is to stay out of the way of the marketplace. Indeed he appears possessed of that favorite conviction that we can only do good by commission (doing stuff, passing laws, getting in there and fixing things). What he does not appear to grasp is that, when it comes to markets, politicians do their best work by omission, by staying out of the way.”

  5. MHB

    Why do “We take for granted McCain understands how to make markets work.”?

    Because of his age/tenure/race? I don’t think he has a particularly distinguished record of economic intelligence. (and who is this we you speak of?)

    From Obama I think we’re gonna see something that echoes the New Deal.

  6. jkh

    as an innovator’s rule of thumb: the more charismatic leadership – the less bureaucracy you need.

    the things he needs to do is to inspire, to give the direction, and to continuosly set the pace. and on sunday he may rest.

  7. Alan

    Grant, I think you have not quite thought through Obama’s arrival as a political leader at a critical moment in US history.

    McCain is an easy target because he is a throwback, as you point out. He is a maverick, an old-style American individualist quoting Teddy Roosevelt, the original, self-styled Rough Rider.

    Obama does NOT come out of this American history-myth, though he must make an appeal to it and even pay homage to it. Obama is something new.

    Exactly what is unclear, as you say.

    But there are clues you are leaving unexamined.

    Don’t you think Obama will move the US out of the trap of its old history-myth (INDIVIDUALISM) and into the modern reality of COLLECTIVISM?

    One thing you are right about, Grant, this is a dangerous intersection and jay walking will almost certainly be fatal.

    So I think you need to get much much more diligent here.

    Obama is a change maker and as a politician he will change the political rhetoric of America by revising its myth making. How will the markets respond? We’ll see.

  8. peter

    Thoughtful comments, Grant, although I have to disagree with you about the role of Governments in markets. Not all markets (maybe none ever) work perfectly, and one role of Government is rectify the bugs or ameliorate their consequences.

    In the last month, for example, the market for inter-bank lending in the western world ground to a halt because the recent spate of bank failures meant that no major bank had sufficient trust in any other major bank to lend it money. Barclays did not trust, for example, Bank of America to survive, and so would not lend money to it. This very unexpected and potentially-catastrophic failure of a market has only been rectified by (a) Western Governments promising consumers that their bank deposits will be safe (so that consumer trust in banks did not decline), and (b) Western Governments taking shares in the major banks in order to provide the banks with sufficient trust in one another to start lending again. In such a situation, commission – indeed PDQ commission – is essential. I have a great deal more confidence in an Obama administration recognizing a market failure and acting quickly to rectify it than either the Bush administration (which had to be prodded by the Europeans and the banks to act appropriately in this case) or a McCain administration.

    It is possible to have too much experience, since it can leave behind a legacy mindset, and I think McCain suffers from that.

  9. RRS

    With respect Grant, suggesting that “the best way to produce wealth is to stay out of the marketplace” is a little like suggesting that the best way to build brands is to ignore the consumer or the power of anthropology (although I know that even you might support this at times), and to suggest that “markets do better when you leave them alone” ignores all evidence of recent economic events.

  10. Henri Weijo

    While I personally might disagree on your point about free markets and their role in creating wealth, Grant, I think you’ve painted Obama a bit too much as a stereotypical market-interfering liberal, his expressed thoughts on the matter don’t support that kind of characterization.

    I suggest you google this article (since your blog doesn’t allow HTML links):

    NYT Magazine: Barack Obama, A Free-Market-Loving, Big-Spending, Fiscally Conservative Wealth Redistributionist (Aug 20th, 2008)

    That article is a good read and sheds some light on how Obama understands the values markets.

  11. Joshua H.

    If I understand you correctly then your point is that the best work politicians have done in markets involves removing their personal influence and allowing the pool of innovation and entrepreneurship to counter future problems.

    There should be less controversy surrounding this than the responses to your blog seem to imply. Barak Obama ascended to the presidency because of cultural resonance with the American populace, but that alone doesn’t mean he understands commerce. The issue here seems to be outside of regulation and into the deeper issue of our future president’s understanding of the process of innovation. Whether he sets economic boundaries or regulations that restrict and control certain behaviors in a manner typical of conservatives or liberals is irrelevant as long as he understands the way markets negotiate within those contexts to find the most structurally viable solutions.

    In law and social work you actively solve problems. You work to get out the vote or create and defend legal structures because you are in the role of the innovator. When managing the economy you have to step back, create regulations (or eliminate them) and allow others to become the innovators.

    It may seem counter to his experience, but with individuals such as Buffet, Volkner, and Goolsbee advising him and with his penchant for the integration of ideas rather than dictation, I think we’re in very good hands.

  12. Duncan Berry

    Spot on, as usual, Grant.

    The funny thing is that “capitalism” — the honorable pursuit of profit by economic as opposed to political means — is effectively a biological reality. It is rooted in individual experience that we cannot deny: that our labor has merit, and that merit is determined by the demand of those who voluntarily pay for it. It is decidedly NOT a “system” that we can control, as if the economy were some sort of hydraulic mechanism. As Hayek taught, it is an Order.

    Those of us who remember the heady days around 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell saw this biological-economic reality smash through a tyrannical political reality, and put an end to 200 years of self-imposed misery.

    Much as politicians and bureaucrats might imagine that they can “manage” this law of nature, they have about as much a chance at success as repealing the Law of Gravity. I believe it is a tragedy that NEITHER party seems to grasp this Law of Nature anymore, both being seduced by the fairy dust of imperial Washington.

    I suspect that despite his best intentions, the next President will effectively demolish more wealth than he will ever be able to “spread around.”

  13. ErikJ

    I just hope that the entire purpose of getting Obama elected wasn’t just to get him elected and that he can be more than a cultural impact adna great speaker. There are serious issues that will be faced in the neear future and I hope that he can face these with the power and determination that needs to be there

  14. ErikJ

    I just hope that the entire purpose of getting Obama elected wasn’t just to get him elected and that he can be more than a cultural impact adna great speaker. There are serious issues that will be faced in the neear future and I hope that he can face these with the power and determination that needs to be there

  15. Dave Scotland

    QUOTE:”Both Obama and McCain are in my opinion deeply honorable, admirable men. ”

    Ha Ha Ha Ha ………….Ha

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