On the way to Ohio last week, I picked up a book in the airport that outlines Obama’s "Plan to Renew America’s Promise" and includes several of Obama’s more famous speeches. In reading it, I could not help but notice the way that Obama has picked up (ultimately for the purpose of discarding) the tone of Bill Clinton and his "third way" or "New Democrat" speech. That is to say, he covers up his Liberal tracks with Conservative sounding platitudes. His speeches and his "plan" are laced with language such as "government can’t solve all our problems," "personal responsibility," "hard work," "self-reliance," and "we don’t like to see our tax dollars wasted." But I could not help but notice that this phraseology was always employed as the follow up to some more outrageous and liberal claim.
An example that seems especially fitting given the direction of the campaign: his speech in Flint, Michigan last June. He titles this speech, Renewing American Competitiveness and, in it, he outlines plans for a top-down approach to solving all of America’s economic woes. What seems at first to be an inspiring look at what America, at its best, is capable of doing is--upon closer examination--a cynical evaluation of the prospects of Americans when left alone to their own devices and in possession of their own freedoms. Note this paragraph:
[His plan is] designed to restore balance and fairness to the American economy after years of Bush Administration policies that tilted the playing field in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected. But the truth is, none of these short-term steps alone will ensure America’s future. Yes, we have to make sure that the economic pie is sliced more fairly, but we also have to make sure that the economic pie is growing. [emphasis mine] Yes, we need to provide immediate help to families who are struggling in places like Flint, but we also need a serious plan to create new jobs and industry.See how he does that? He talks about slicing up an economic pie in a way that no longer favors the wealthy and well-connected but then, to play to what’s left of any sentiment resembling American self-respect, he also notes that we have to make the pie "grow."
Now, maybe I’m overly sensitive to things like sloppy metaphors, but I can’t help but think there’s a tell in there. He’s trying to marry two completely incompatible ideas. I mean, pies are wonderful and delicious, but the last time I baked one I noticed that it did not "grow." Pies (at least the kind worth eating) do not grow, they only shrink. If your pie is growing, it’s probably a rotten pie and it’s only growing mold. So maybe "pie" is the wrong metaphor for an economy one expects to see grow. It’s certainly the wrong metaphor for an American economy that has always grown and, quite naturally, spread itself without the intervention of wealth spreaders in Washington.
In fact, I’d say an economy is more like a fruit tree than a pie. It doesn’t come to us a finished (and limited) product--like a pie, ready to feed our hunger or satisfy some deep craving for sweets not earned. Rather, an economy presents itself like that tree as raw opportunity that depends upon our efforts to nourish it, protect it, and help it grow. When we do that and fortune smiles on us (because chance can never be removed from the equation), it may yield fruit--fruit that we can use to make our own pies (or cider). Indeed, it may yield fruit that carries within it seeds for the growing of more trees! So, if your object is to yield more fruit to make possible the baking of more pies, it’s probably better (and more just) if you just leave the slicing of those pies to the ones who baked them. Better, that is, unless we want to go back to an economic philosophy that says, "You work. I’ll eat."