Archive for May, 2011


Gertude Stein’s famous “There is no there there” implied that Oakland, her childhood home, had not achieved much of a presence. San Franciscans often agree. So, too, many Americans think that progress and decency end at this nation’s borders. Having returned Wednesday from two weeks in Paris and London, I’d like to remind those Americans who have no use for anything beyond our shores and seldom, if ever, leave North America that there is a “there” everywhere.

First, let’s get something straight. I love the United States. It offered my family opportunities denied in the “there” (Tsarist Poland and Russia) from which my grandparents fled. Let’s not confuse recognition of other nations’ validity with a lack of patriotism. Life is more complicated than that.

I’ve found London and Paris—and Vancouver, Mexico City, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Rome, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Bangkok and Tokyo—all to be dynamic, each in its own way. I like San Francisco’s Muni, for example, but I love the subways in Paris, London and Tokyo. I have good memories of Mexico City’s metro, too. These cities—and their national governments—have much to teach us. For example, while the US struggles to fund capital improvements for transit, London is renovating many of its tube stations, including Tottenham Court near where we stay in the Bloomsbury district. This massive project creates jobs and will offer an enhanced transit experience.

And while Europe hasn’t caught up to the US in its ability to assimilate immigrants, London and Paris still reveal multi-ethnic societies. A young Iranian man drove us to Heathrow airport Wednesday morning. He moved to London eight years ago (he has a sibling in Paris and one in Chicago; his parents remain in Teheran) and drives eight hours a day. But his love is the two hours a week he works for BBC producing a Farsi-language show on Iranian culture. He hopes to do that full-time since he studied communications in university in Iran.

Another example comes from the Financial Times (May 25), which I read while waiting for our flight home. Abdirashid Duale, from Somaliland, runs the London end of a successful family business, Dahabshiil. The company handles remittances—£200 million a year—from Somalis around the world to their native country. The family established a London office because Duale was willing to learn about English and European business practices while providing outstanding customer service based on Somali culture.

“Only in America,” we say. But the pursuit of happiness is universal and not a zero-sum game. America ultimately will find solutions to its challenges in concert with other nations. That’s why President Obama arrived at Buckingham Palace as our trip wound down and is now participating in the G8 talks in Deauville, France. Other societies may not totally resemble ours, and some deserve our condemnation. But as I write in GOD’S OTHERS, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. The world’s far smaller than when I was a boy. The sooner we recognize that we are not alone, the better.

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The other day I saw two boys running home after school. The “hare” sprinted ahead then faltered and stopped. The “tortoise” kept running and disappeared from view far ahead.

I thought of conservatives—and many liberals, too—who take the “hare” or sprinter’s approach to the economy. Either push some free-market buttons or throw government cash at the problem. Then watch the economy soar justlikethat. I don’t think so.

It took nearly a decade to find Osama bin Laden. Persistence and hard work bore fruit. President George W. Bush made a costly mistake in not letting American troops go after bin Laden at Tora Bora after 9/11, but he never intended for bin Laden to escape. President Obama concluded that our “friends” in Afghanistan and Pakistan should not determine American actions and moved forward with SEAL Team 6. They succeeded.

The markets yawned at bin Laden’s death. I liked that. Investors would have responded enthusiastically in the months after 9/11, but in some ways, bin Laden already was history. Investor attention focused on the state of the economy which, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reported a week ago, is recovering albeit slowly. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, among others, has long written that many Americans fail to understand the depth of the hole into which the economy plunged and how much time we’ll need to get out of it. Quick fixes like cutting vital social programs to the bone or increased government spending that bloats the deficit may play to a number of voters but represent dereliction of duty.

Let’s give President Obama some credit here. Now that the birther movement has dissipated—less a few diehards who will remain—perhaps the nation will attend to real issues with an eye on reality. America’s penchant for mechanistic thinking—anything can be repaired quickly as if it were a car engine or some other mechanical device—requires modification. By opposing mechanistic solutions, Mr. Obama reveals himself to be a tortoise.

But as the 2012 election grows nearer, Republicans may find the tortoise too far out front to catch. Economic data keep trending up. Today’s non-farms payroll report showed a gain of 244,000 jobs. While unemployment rose from 8.8% to 9.0%, this most likely indicates growing confidence in the economy and more people reentering the job market. The Dow closed at 12810 on April 29 then dropped back this week, reinforcing a two-steps-forward, one-back approach. A very possible scenario: the Dow approaches 14000 a year from now when election season kicks into high gear. Many people have said to me that we’ll never see that number again in our lifetimes. Those conversations are now all of two years old.

Emotions have run wild over the last several years. But indeed, the President was born in Hawaii. Bin Laden is gone. And the economy, while not where we want it to be, has made significant progress. Americans may yet conclude that patience and pragmatism represent virtues.

I’ll be taking the next few Fridays off. It’s a great opportunity to review past posts—just scroll down. Want to respond? Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.