09 June 2017

The Real Failing of Modern Politics

Yesterday's UK election brought home what is for me the major failing of modern politics. There was little question that the biggest winner would be either Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party or Theresa May's Conservative Party. Simply put, Corbyn wants more government spending and May wants more government austerity. These positions are distasteful to most voters because on the one hand it means more taxes and on the other it means fewer government services.

What is the biggest failing of modern politics within the West? Politicians have largely given up on promising prosperity. They've run out of tricks. W. Bush pushed capital gains tax reduction to stimulate more investment and investors pumped money into weird things like mortgage backed securities, thus setting us up for the Great Recession. Democrats push for investing more money into education but already we have more graduates than new jobs. (In 2013, the American educational system created 3.7 million college graduates (from AA and BA degrees to PhD and professional degrees) but only 2.4 million net new jobs.) What worked brilliantly in the 18th and 19th centuries (encouraging the creation and deployment of capital) and what worked fabulously in the 20th century (creating an extensive public school system to make K-12, even K-BA education the new normal) simply is not enough in this new century.

We will need capital in today's economy. More than ever. We will need well educated workers in this new economy. Again, more than ever. The difference? Capital and knowledge workers no longer lead the parade of progress. Entrepreneurship does. Any policy makers intent on creating prosperity need to focus on creating an entrepreneurial system.

One of the most spectacular inventions of the two centuries from 1700 to 1900 was the development of a financial system. Through a combination of private and public sector efforts, the West created an incredible ability to finance projects as vast as interstate highways or as small as the purchase of a coffee with a credit card. And policy makers can influence that system with changes in interest rates and other policies to stimulate or cool an economy, helping to promote the creation of jobs or to lower the rate of inflation. Our financial system is vast, complex, and rightfully the focus of policy makers throughout the economy.

One of the most incredible inventions of last century was the development of an education system that changed the experience of children from that of entering the work force at the age of 8 or 10 to that of entering university at 18 or 20. Again, this is a vast system with many moving parts but it is possible - through policy initiatives and cultural norms - to change and influence education and thus the economy through this system.

By contrast, we still have not developed a comparable entrepreneurial system. That is the work of our generation. We can lower interest rates and increase borrowing, change educational standards and increase the number of students who get a high school diploma or a graduate degree in business or education. Meanwhile, our relationship to entrepreneurs is about what it was to education in the 1800s. In 1800 most communities supported freedom of speech and thought but they largely left education to autodidacts and elites, self-taught gentlemen who could afford libraries, trips abroad or time at a university. The masses were not expected to get much of an education. In 2000, most communities support the ideas of entrepreneurship and grant a measure of freedom to private citizens to try their hand at starting a business. Entrepreneurship is left to those who are strong enough to push against the system or financially supported enough to fund a venture that might take years to become profitable. (The children of the affluent are far more likely to become entrepreneurs.) We don't expect the masses to consider - or even know how to approach - entrepreneurship. Unlike education, we have yet to popularize entrepreneurship.

Rather than force communities to choose between cutting services or cutting taxes, really effective politicians will engage in a conversation about how to create prosperity. During the 20th century, not only did families end up with vastly more income but they were able to fund a vastly larger government. There wasn't a trade off. The private AND public sector got enormously better. Prosperity gives you that option.

My own sense is that until communities throughout the West get as serious about the work of popularizing entrepreneurship, they'll continue to pursue a politics of divisiveness that forces communities to choose between the lesser of two lessers rather than the greater of two mores.

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