My younger daughter was in Edinburgh earlier this week and visited the grave of Adam Smith. That's a little weird, right? For a 20-year-old?
Anyway, I learned more from this experience than just that my daughter is a little weird, which, to be honest, I already knew. I also learned that Adam Smith is still dead -- which wouldn't be noteworthy except that here in the United States we seem to be on the verge of having a national referendum on the future of capitalism.
The Republican's presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, last night offered a victory speech following the New Hampshire primary in which he essentially made the differences in his views on capitalism and those of the president the dividing-line issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. Romney asserted that President Obama seeks "to put free enterprise on trial."
On Sunday, President Obama's chief campaign guru, David Axelrod, said that Mitt Romney was a "corporate raider, not a job creator." In so doing, he helped sketch out the different approaches to this central issue. Romney will try to position himself as a "turnaround artist" who understands what makes American business great and can restore vitality. Obama will try to position the former Bain Capital boss as representative of the greedy, indulgent 1 percent who blew up the economy in 2008 and will do so again if unchecked by wise government.
The intensity of this debate has been heightened recently by the attacks of some of Romney's Republican competitors like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry who, reeking of sour grapes, are going after Romney as being a representative of "bad" capitalism, the rapacious kind practiced by private-equity bandits, or "vultures" as Perry characterized them. There are manifold ironies and hypocrisies here, given that both are members of the U.S. political party most closely associated with big business views and that, for example, Gingrich's anti-Romney onslaught is being funded by a fat cat named Sheldon Adelson who made his millions in the gaming business. So Gingrich is attacking Romney for playing in the Wall Street casino with dollars made from actual casinos and attacking Romney for hurting workers by seeking profits that were too big (that actually often went to fund the pensions of average Americans), with dollars that came from praying on those poor suckers whose understanding of arithmetic was so lousy that they actually thought they could profit from gambling.
Debating the future of American capitalism is a good idea. The past several years have clearly shown the system is broken. Inequality is skyrocketing. Social mobility is plummeting. Median incomes have been hammered. Too-big-to-fail financial institutions have gotten a free ride while Main Street Americans continue to drown in underwater mortgages. Whether or not we should have bailed those banks out or whether we should have helped the auto industry or how much regulation is the right amount or whether we should have an active industrial policy to support key U.S. industries are all legitimate questions to debate. The fact is that while we once were the example for capitalists the world over to follow, there are now a variety of brands of capitalism emerging that use different formulas and are gaining legitimacy due to their own successes and/or the obvious defects in the "leave it to the markets" approach of Anglo-U.S. capitalism. There is the more state-centric "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" being practiced in the world's fastest-growing major economy. There is the "democratic development capitalism" of Brazil or India. There is the "small-state entrepreneurial capitalism" of countries like Singapore, the UAE, Israel, or Chile. And there is Eurocapitalism which, despite the problems in Europe that are so frequently (far too frequently) cited by Romney, has produced some of the nations (mostly in Northern Europe) that have the best balance between fiscal responsibility, growth, and quality-of-life measures anywhere in the world.
We've gone from celebrating the end of history in which America's free market theology triumphed over godless communism to realizing that our victory dance was premature and that we've entered a new world of competing capitalisms. Further, given our problems, others are gaining sway as the world votes for alternative models with the policies they adopt. It's also worth noting that all the other alternatives gaining traction worldwide have a much bigger role for government in their public-private sector mix than does the U.S. model -- Republican attacks on "big government" aside.
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George Bernard Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. But now we live in the Internet Age and English has, in way that still galls the Gaullists, become the lingua franca of e-cosmopolitans. The result is that now our language can separate Americans not just from the English but from all the world.
This is especially true when customs and culture and quirks of local context enter into matters. For example, someone outside the United States might pick up a newspaper or log on to a website to read about this week's Iowa caucuses and conclude that they were an important political event in the U.S., that the winners won or that the losers lost. After all, that's what the words on the page or on the screen seemed to say. But the reality is that to understand what's going on in U.S. politics, the international observer really needs some kind of translation device, a U.S. politics to English dictionary, that will help reveal the real meaning obscured by the words.
So let me try to help. Here are a few key translations that may be of use during the current Republican campaign. Note, there are similarly twisted definitions used by Democrats which I will get to later:
Ron Paul: This is electoral English for "none of the above." When voters cast a vote for Paul, it is less for the man (there really is a Ron Paul) or his policies (a strange brew of Austrian economics, isolationism, and a late night television ad for solid gold medallions commemorating the historic events at Area 51) than it is a protest vote against the system.
Ron Paul Supporters: These are young white guys who have never had a date who need something to occupy them until the movie of "The Hobbit" is released...or they are older libertarians who believe that the Fed is where Bilderbergers meet to devalue the dollars they need in order to buy the guns with which they intend to protect their homes from space aliens or people from New York.
Ronald Reagan: This is not a reference to the real Ronald Reagan -- an American president from a while back. Instead it refers to an imaginary, idealized vision of a conservative president developed by the right wing of the Republican Party. Reagan was hardly a true conservative, growing government enormously, creating burgeoning deficits, actively working with Democrats, depending heavily on compromises that drew him closer to a Democratic sub-group that supported him, and hardly living by anything that might be considered the "family values" touted by the religious right.
Conservative Base of the Republican Party: This is a term for the small minority of right wing Republicans who have been successful at conveying the idea that they control the Republican Party even though they have not be able to select a single genuine member of their faction as the party's candidate since 1964.
Attack Ads: These are what candidates call ads that (often accurately) recount weak parts of their records. Oddly, these are often acts of compromise that actually should be seen as the high points of their public service careers. The synonym for "attack ad" when it refers to an ad you would run against an opponent is "the truth."
Winning: This is not to be confused with the term "winning" made popular by deranged, drug-addled actor Charlie Sheen to refer to the disasters that made his career a shambles. But it does share some similarities in that it seldom actually refers to winning. Candidates who finish second or third or even fourth or fifth in primaries might be said to have "won" because...well, because they don't want to admit they have lost. Which they did. A recent great example of this kind of spin is when after the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul observed that if you counted the two guys who finished ahead of him as one guy then he would have finished second.
Getting Tough with Iran: On a variety of policy issues what candidates say is very different from what they actually mean or intend to do. Therefore it is very important for non-native electoral English speakers to understand the real meaning of key foreign policy assertions lest they fear some of what is promised actually might happen. For example, GOP candidates, in an effort to show they are strong on defense will bend over backwards to say they will/would attack Iran to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. They are no more likely to than any American president -- which is to say, they are probably likely to support an attack on Iran by the Israelis if it needed to be made (as would the Saudis and a number of other of Iran's uncomfortable neighbors.)
Punishing China: This is another promise to be taken with a grain of salt. Mitt Romney, the almost certain GOP presidential candidate, has said he will be tough on the Chinese on trade. He won't be. His friends in business lean heavily against alienating the Chinese whose market is so attractive to them. So he'll rattle the economic saber but should he win election he will pull his punches.
Socialism: This is not a reference to the political theories of Karl Marx nor any descended from them. Rather it is a term used by Republicans to describe any government program that benefits parts of the population other than the rich or big business. It is designed to make the President of the United States seem more godless and "other" like. It implies he speaks Russian or Chinese to his children while burning American flags in secret possibly satanic rituals.
Europe: Hotbed of "socialism." A synonym for failure...despite the fact that much of northern Europe outperforms the U.S. by almost every economic and quality of life measure.
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And so it came to pass that the Lord God looked down upon the people of the world in the early years of the 21st century (frankly, it had nothing to do with His position: you would look down on them too) and saw they were dissatisfied and unrest filled the parks of their financial districts and their tea parties were no longer festive occasions featuring scones and clotted cream.
And He thought, "I have given them food and they grew fat. I have given them Eden and they paved it over. I have given them the air they breathe and they pumped it full of greenhouse gasses. I gave them life and they turned it into a reality television show. And they're frustrated! If I weren't immortal I'd be on the ledge myself right now."
Now it was Christmastime in America (or, as it was known to God in Heaven, holiday season) and as the Lord was finishing a big plate of latkes he pondered what He might do. "I have even given the Christians my only son," He muttered to Himself, sounding uncannily like Morgan Freeman. "How do you top that?"
And so it was that the Lord created Tim Tebow. And Tebow was a man who had the faith of the prophets, the virtue of the saints, the body of a linebacker, and the ability to run the option. He also was possessed of charm, good looks, and an underrated throwing arm (face it, three or four really good passes were dropped last weekend).
Now for those among the disbelievers who might ask, "How does the deity look down upon the earth, see a problem, and create a full-grown guy to solve it when that really would require some advance planning?" The answer is He's the deity for Christ's sake. Omniscient. All powerful. And for those of you who are non-believers or who believe in science (Democrats), see the recent special issue of Scientific American on the mysteries of time. It has a great explanation of how many physicists believe all instants in time co-exist simultaneously and I'm sure you can work it out from there.
To ensure that Tebow was appreciated and able to deliver to the people the Lord's message of hope, he was made a football player, which guaranteed him far better ratings than he could get were he an itinerant preacher. Indeed, the Lord knew if he had Tebow wandering the Mideast barefoot like some of his prior creations he would probably die, the anonymous casualty of some drone strike. So, going with the NFL, which God had noticed with some frustration was considerably better at marketing than any of the world's major religions, seemed like a good idea.
And so, each week, on the American Sabbath (which is usually Sundays and Monday nights but late in the season also includes Thursdays and Saturdays), the Lord would unfold before America a new Tebow parable for all to behold. In each, Tebow would struggle much as the Jews have through history (constantly on the run, constantly at risk, unfairly perceived as the creators of their own misfortunes). But then, in the last moments, when all hope was lost, fortune would change and, as if by miracle (not entirely a coincidence), Tebow would emerge victorious and even the cynical and the hopeless of America would for a moment believe again.
And thus it came to pass that the lesson of the Book of Tebow was written, clear for all to behold and important for all to comprehend -- even if they thought football was a barbarian entertainment in which hyperthyroid freaks pound one another with the crowns of their helmets until they are insensible, thus dramatically shortening their lifespans and pretty much reenacting the most brutal, bloodthirsty days of Roman gladiators without any of the grace, elegance, or athleticism of soccer.
And that lesson was that in football and in all walks of life, no story is complete until its final sentence is written. This is as true for the average plumber or resident of the Jersey Shore as it is for those whom God has selected, such as Tebow Himself or Tom Cruise. (But this is not the place to get into why God created Scientology. Suffice it to say that it was all part of a bet with another deity from a distant alternative monotheistic universe to see just what kind of ridiculous nonsense they could get people to believe in.)
The message is clear. For 55 minutes of every Tebow game, the story an observer might tell would be one of futility, hopelessness, and misreading the secondary. But everything can be transformed in seconds. Judge not, sayeth the Lord, at least not until the fat lady has sung. Because if you are a mess for 55 minutes but deliver in the final five, people will remember you as a winner and think only of your miracles, and your reputation and your potential to do celebrity endorsements will skyrocket.
There is a lesson in all this for those who are watching American politics. It is not, by the way, that Tebow has a great career awaiting him in Washington. God has no intention of wasting any salvageable soul inside the Beltway. It is that despite impulses to the contrary from pundits, Twitterati, and other shoot-from-the-lip insta-historians, you can't make a final judgment on politicians, campaigns, or even presidencies until the final sentence of their stories has been written.
We have seen it throughout history. Nixon may have been among the most successful presidents of the past 50 years in pure policy terms. But the last sentence of the story determined that he would be remembered for Watergate. Carter was a muddled micromanager but is remembered for a great post-Presidency. Clinton seemed lost to a sullied memory but has similarly redeemed himself in his own professional epilogue.
In this campaign, we have seen that Gingrich -- for whom the Lord God denies any responsibility, attributing him to other malevolent forces in the Universe -- got to enjoy the unusual privilege of reading all his professional obituaries before he got to read stories of his own second coming. (The Lord God is not very happy with that allusion either.) And so it may be that since the Republican nomination won't be locked up until the convention, it is premature now to cast a final judgment on any candidate or his strategy.
Finally, and most importantly, it is also true that judgment must be withheld on Barack Obama's tenure as president. Many people look at his low poll numbers and mid-term assessments of his remoteness, aloofness, and impulse to compromise and say he has frittered away an opportunity. But what if the economy rebounds a little (as it seems to be doing), unemployment slips to around eight percent or a little below, and the president is reelected. What if America actually manages the crisis relatively better than Europe or Japan (it won't be hard) and becomes a safe haven for the capital of a world awash in money seeking a new home? Will he be remembered as aloof? Or will he instead be celebrated as the cool, calm center of reason whose steady hand helped slowly guide America to a recovery -- a man who managed to stabilize markets, ride out unrest, and coax recovery into taking root, all while coolly dispatching al-Qaeda and bin Laden, getting out of two wars, and bringing health care to millions of Americans who didn't have it before?
Think about it.
It's not impossible. And, of course, the fact that nothing is impossible is, to be sure, the other most important lesson of the Book of Tebow.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.