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GP 16 April 2008: The Natural Aristocrat

Elitist and Divisive.  This week Senator Hillary Clinton accused Senator Obama of being elistist. “Elitist and divisive” were her exact words.  We certainly hope so.  As you will discover right on the first page of the Global Province, we devised it for “elitists everywhere.”  They’re our heroes.

In fact, we would argue that America has never needed elitism more.  For twenty or thirty years our politicians, our press and broadcast lords, and our run-of-the-mill business leaders have been promoting culture of a far different ilk.  The word has been segmentation, interest group politics, eradicating all the costs involved in ministering to the many, delivering less while pretending it is more.  From 1990 forward, maybe even before, we went into a nosedive where we lowered our standards, took the quality out of our products and lives and government, and tried to pretend things were as good as always. Companies even try to drive away customers they regard as low profit.  We have described this as the Wal-Marting of America. Curiously Senator Clinton was a onetime Wal-Mart board member, much admired by Sam Walton.

During the last two administrations, we have really gone into the tank.  Our leaders have focused on holding “onto their base,” which means they have been neglecting 60% of America, and pandering to the base instincts of compact minorities.  Quality has gone out the window.

Curiously, Senator Clinton has finally defined our real problem, as she knocks the better and the best.  She, as our last two presidents, has practiced interest-group politics.  Her in-house guru Mark Penn, author of Microtrends, focused her on all the slice-and-dice tricks he thought might just gain her enough votes, throwing the rest of America off the back of the boat.  He, as well as her other swamp dogs, the two H’s—Howard Wolfson and especially Harold McEwen Ickes—are minions you certainly do not want in your boat and are certainly people you will never call elitists.  Penn, though dismissed, still sets the agenda—a politics that provides very little for a very few.  They loathe big ideas and grandiloquence.

Aristocratic Democracy. Yes, and curiously, Barack Obama does have the ring of the ‘natural aristocrat’ to him.   As Aristotle hinted, natural aristocrats are born to lead and spring up perhaps unpredictably.  One does not want to put hereditary aristocrats in charge of anything, because when a family is recognized as aristocratic, it is petering out and its brains are getting soft.  Certainly that has been true in America, where the offspring of dynasties have notoriously thin, bad blood.   Natural aristocrats just happen, and when they do, we just have to have the good sense to put them in the saddle.  Some would argue that, in fact, Aristotle was holding out for an ‘aristocratic democracy.’ 

What Nietzsche Has to Say About Our Plight.  Oddly enough, the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche speaks to this question. A troubled, perverse, and rather dramatic thinker, Nietzsche is taken to be a precursor to rightwing militarism, the Nazis, anti-Semitism, and even Wagner.  Without getting into the whole swim of his world view, we can say that he offered up a superhero, who led with a force of spirit, whom Nietzsche counterposed to the blond beast who prevailed through oafishness and brute force, and to the nest of clever individuals who were often quite intelligent but were motivated by meanness and recrimination.  There’s lots that’s wrong with Nietzsche, but he cannily recognized that we have a need for leaders who are bright but not petty, who are forceful but not ax-wielding.  For twenty years we have had leaders of intelligence and cunning, who will club their enemies.  But, morally lacking, they have been incapable of historic achievement.

The Quest for Quality.  That our leadership for the last few decades has thought in bits and pieces, instead of looking to the whole, is not without consequence.  We are in bits and pieces.  American has been in decline as a political and military power, and the world can sense our weakness.  Our economic plunge has been as precipitous. 

Sometime after 1970 businesses started taking costs out of their organizations and of their products.  Manufacture was outsourced.  Middle managers were forced out.  And so on.  Quality became a mantra, particularly in the management consulting circles around Boston and New York, at the very moment when it was being squeezed out of business.  It was all hot air.  We have been exalting shoddy products and half-baked services ever since.  This has put us on the path to nowhere.

Low-cost, low-quality products are not an option for an advanced economy with built-in big costs.  We cannot compete with China, India, and others if the game is all about shaving pennies.   Our only option is high-cost, high-price, high-innovation products and services.  We need to be a Scandanavia, with high educational standards and effective public healthcare systems that produces Nokia telephones, Marimekko fabrics, iittala   glassware, etc.  We can no longer pretend that bad is good.  It will take some natural aristocratic leadership to get where we have to go and put us on the high road.

John W. Gardiner.  Ameican patriot extraordinary, founder of Common Cause, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Johnson Administration, John W. Gardiner understood that our democracy is dependent on greatness and the quest for excellence. Dumbing down will not do.  It’s wise to remember him as we come to realize that a little natural aristocracy will not hurt, but help, the American dream:

Men of integrity, by their very existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor.  We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.

Some people strengthen the society just by being the kind of people they are.

The cynic says, “One man can't do anything.” I say, “Only one man can do anything.”

The idea for which this nation stands will not survive if the highest goal free man can set themselves is an amiable mediocrity.  Excellence implies striving for the highest standards in every phase of life.

P.S.  In our consulting practice, we find that only one business in thirty benefits long term from a strategy that calls for being the low-cost producer.  That does not mean that one does not have to get costs under control.  It simply means that the lowest cost producer eventually gets extinguished.  Even now we can remember the radio jingles of the 1950’s discount chains that are no longer with us.

P.P.S.  The question, of course, is whether Obama is intuitive enough to tackle changes that have neither a conservative nor liberal slant.  More of the same- old will sink us.  The retirement age will have to be raised.  More of our monies will have to be devoted to early education, and dollars will have to be taken away from over- inflated colleges.  We will be moving people out of cars and planes onto people movers.  The power grid will have to allow for more sources of power, much more decentralized.   More compact, more vertical development will have to occur.  And so it goes.

P.P.P.S   Wal-Mart is busily expanding operations in China, India, Mexico, Russia, and other developing nations.  Perhaps it can also devastate their economies, putting them on a low-quality, low-cost path, making us competitive by bringing down our competitors.

P.P.P.P.S.  Polly Lauder Tunney, 100, died on April 12, 2008 (New York Times, April 15, 2008, p. C11).  She was the widow of the great prizefighter Gene Tunney.  “Though he had grown up relatively poor in Greenwich Village as the son of Irish immigrants … Tunney, a high school dropout, had developed an insatiable appetite for classical literature, especially the works of Shakespeare.  Handsome and articulate, he lectured at Yale and befriended George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder and other writers, earning the scorn of the boxing establishment and many boxing fans.”  He was known as a thinking fighter.

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