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.