Un-American

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Those of you who have read my work probably have a decent sense as to my personal history and my own disposition. I’m not that old, and my maturity is anchored at around age 17 or so. However, my values are really old fashioned: I was an Eagle Scout. Worked hard from age 13 forward. Industrious and ambitious. Married my childhood crush. Had kids. Served the family above all else. The whole schmear.

I was also a patriot, almost to the point of jingoism. I loved images of Washington, D.C. I read the entire Declaration of Independence to myself every 4th of July. As a little boy, I would put on the actual army hat of Captain Knight, my father, who was in the Korean War. I loved America about as much as I believed possible. My adoration of Ronald Reagan won me no friends during my college years.

Starting in 2008, I started to fall out of love with the United States. Over the time-span of a dozen years, this chill has increased to the point of near detestation. The bad feelings were already there, but what took place in March and April of this year has caused those ugly feelings to metastasize, and I felt compelled to try to articulate those feelings here.

Let me set this up by briefly describing three artificial realities. I offer these simple examples to make a collective point.

Body

We begin with health. The best way for me to explain my disposition toward physical fitness is via a favorite Emo Phillips joke: “My body is a temple. Or at least a relatively well-maintained Presbyterian youth facility.”

I’ve never smoked. I’ve never drank alcohol to excess. I do not take drugs. I eat healthy, organic food. I don’t bother exercising much, but I’d say I’m fairly physically fit and in excellent health.

Let’s imagine a world in which the government sought to have people roughly equal with respect to health. So take another person who smoked like a chimney, drank a tremendous amount, took drugs, and basically wrecked his body. Let us further suppose that, by law, the government could harvest healthy components of my own body which could be spared (like, say, a kidney) in case someone unhealthy required it.

In other words, just a different spin on “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” The government seeks to level the playing field by effectively punishing those who take care of themselves (me) and aiding those who have parasitic relationships with society (the aforementioned hard-drinking fat slob).

Values

My wife and I have raised our children with a certain set of values. Some of these include resilience, industry, creativity, and thrift. I suspect they will live their lives with these in mind, and they will pass them on to their own children as well.

As with the health example, let us conjure up some other similar kids who were devoid of such values. Perhaps these other kids tend more toward the parasitic side. They’re lazy. They cheat whenever they can. Take every handout available They are content to get by, as long as they work as little as possible and can zone out in front of the television.

Fast forward to the future. The government wants what it considers “fairness” and “opportunity” for its citizens. It isn’t right that some people have so much more than others. My (currently non-existent) grandchildren are therefore heavily taxed in order to cover the welfare, food stamps, pension payments, and other necessities of life for society’s leeches. Once more, hard work is punished. Lack of effort is rewarded.

Next

Dial the clock back to 1990. Steve Jobs’ new company, Next, is foundering. No one is buying the machine. In spite of unprecedented press attention and an extraordinarily talented team, they have created a box which no one seems to care about. It’s a flop.

This doesn’t seem right, however. This is a good American company with a “favorite son” of American capitalism at its helm. These Next founders are job creators, and this organization needs the collective help of the nation. Thus, the Treasury issues the company a $2 billion Technology For America grant, and a special surtax of $75 is levied on every other personal computer sold in America in order to fund the grant.

The Next computer is saved, the the corporation is flush with cash. They massively ramp up advertising. They have by far the biggest booth at trade shows. They hire 500 more engineers. They plan five new Next models.

And yet not only are people still not buying, but the products the company makes actually get worse.

Four years later, the company shuts down, and Steve Jobs is regarded as one of the most abysmal business failures of the century. He is decried in the press as a “one hit wonder” who just happened to be in the right place at the right time with Apple. A company which, incidentally, itself would be bankrupt by 1997, the victim of surging competition among PC makers. Thus, both of Jobs’ creations, Apple as well as Next, would find themselves in the dustbin of corporate history, and Steve Jobs largely forgotten by 2000.

Keep Your Help to Yourself

You can see the common thread here. It all comes down to one thing: government interference. What kinds of words come to mind when I picture the kind of world described above? In no particular order:

  • Taxes;
  • Subsidies;
  • Grants;
  • Tax Credits;
  • Regulations;
  • Bailouts;
  • Accommodations

And what are the kinds of words I imagine when I consider the world I wish to live in, and the kind of world I believed America represented many years ago?

  • Free Enterprise;
  • Risk;
  • Potential for Failure;
  • Rejuvenation;
  • Self-Reliance;
  • Resilience;
  • Perseverance

Let’s revisit that third vignette, this time using what actually happened.

By 1990, Next Computer was indeed a flop. Did a white knight from the government come to the rescue? No. There was a huge financial lifeline given, but that was from (a foolish) Canon Corporation, which dumped hundreds of millions into the firm. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Investors exist to take risk and enjoy the gains (or suffer the losses) that may transpire. The public wasn’t involved.

Next closed its doors. Jobs was humiliated and distraught. And what did this man, who was kicked out of his own company in 1985 and had an astonishingly public failure in 1990 do? Well, two huge things.

One, he bought (on the cheap) Pixar Computer and built it into a firm so successful that he ultimately became the single largest shareholder of Disney Corporation, which purchased Pixar. It made him a billionaire.

And, two, he managed to sell the one good thing that Next created – – its operating system – – to Apple, which set into motion events that would take Apple from being just days away from bankruptcy to instead become the most valuable company on the entire planet.

The story of those years from 1985 through 1997 represents, for me, one of the great American business stories of all time (so much so that I did this documentary about it) and, more than that, encapsulates the true American Dream for me. There was no government interference. There was no meddling or bailout. There was just one particularly determined individual who steered the ship of his life in such a way that, ultimately, affected literally most of the planet.

And yet we don’t seem to live in that kind of world anymore.

There are no true risks. If you are big enough, the government will always save you.

Neither corporations or people are given the opportunity to screw up and bear the consequences anymore. There is something truly cleansing about failure which has been eliminated from the American scene.

Failure has been outlawed; wiped away by unlimited rolls of paper towels printed with the U.S. dollar. Everything is Too Big to Fail. Powell has your back. So does Congress. Keep your profits. Give us your losses.

This, to me, will be the ruination of the nation. The very spirit of the land, in which both humans and the organizations they created were permitted to have winners and losers, seems to be a thing of the past. The consequence, I believe ,will be to slowly drain the spirit out of American entrepreneurship. Instead, America has become a milquetoast bureaucracy, where mediocrity is assured the same success as excellence.

These transitions happen, I suppose, from country to country, and from century to century. It just saddens me to know how things used to be.

I’m not sure I want to stick around this once great land for the rest of my life to see how it turns out. It’s a big world. And I have faith that not every nation is going to follow this same road to perdition. But it makes me sad. And, oddly, where there was once pride, there is now shame.

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