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I don’t have a visceral reaction to Barack Obama one way or the other, but I sure found his commencement address at Wesleyan to be pretty off-putting.  He smugly put himself forward as an exemplar of the well-lived life, and proceeded from this to the more politically significant solipsism of imagining how much better America would be if it were filled with people who were a lot more like Barack Obama.

After some throat-clearing, Obama gets into the meat of the speech by offering himself as a role model for the graduating seniors:

But during my first two years of college, perhaps because the values my mother had taught me –hard work, honesty, empathy – had resurfaced after a long hibernation. . . .   
 
I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings. My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.
 
And I said yes.   

The single sentence paragraph at the end of this section has got to be my favorite part of the speech, though Obama modestly allowing that his evident virtues of hard work, honesty, and empathy are due to his mother is a close second.

What’s funny about his sacrifice is that when Obama took this job, $14,000 was about the average salary for somebody getting out of college. Of course, Obama wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill college graduate; he was an Ivy-Leaguer, who graduated from Columbia with a BA in political science.  A corporate career would almost certainly have been more lucrative — for a while.  Last year, his family income was about $4,200,000. I don’t have the data, but I bet that compares reasonably favorably with the average household income of 1983 Columbia political science and 1991 Harvard Law School graduates. Nonetheless, Obama did sacrifice some of his expected credential-based wage premium for a number of years.

I’m pretty far from being a John McCain booster, but does Obama not get that he’s running against a guy who spent the directly analogous years of his life in a fetid jungle prison being hung upside down and beaten with sticks until his bones broke?

And I said yes.  Cry me a river, pal.

It’s when Obama moves on to apply the lessons of his life to everyone in America, though, that things go from irritating to problematic.

Obama spends many paragraphs exhorting these graduates to do like Obama did, and pursue a lifetime of service:

You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s. . . .

Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story. . . .

There are so many ways to serve and so much need at this defining moment in our history. You don’t have to be a community organizer or do something crazy like run for President. . . . One hundred and sixty-four graduates of this school have joined the Peace Corps since 2001. . . .

[W]e need you to help lead a green revolution. . . . [We need] a generation of volunteers to work on renewable energy projects, and teach folks about conservation, and help clean up polluted areas; if we send talented engineers and scientists abroad to help developing countries promote clean energy. . . .
 
[W]e need an army of you to become teachers and principals. . . .
 
At a time when there are children in the city of New Orleans who still spend each night in a lonely trailer, we need more of you to take a weekend or a week off from work, and head down South, and help rebuild. . . . Find an organization that’s fighting poverty, or a candidate who promotes policies you believe in, and find a way to help them.
 
At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. . . . 
 
[A]ll of us will have to use the energy sources we have more wisely. Deep-rooted poverty will not be reversed overnight. . . . Transforming our education system. . . . Bringing an end to the slaughter in Darfur. . . .

And so on.

This incorporates, but is not limited to, the normal helpful advice that a completely materialistic life is usually not the most fulfilling – “With all thy getting, get understanding.” But it also incorporates the assertion that the well-lived, or at least the best-lived, life must be one centered on engagement with political affairs or a social movement. (Though notably lacking on this long, long list of potential forms of service is any mention of the military.) While Obama throws an occasional rhetorical bone to the idea of responsibilities to jobs and immediate families, and certainly calls out homey service at a small scale to those nearest us as admirable, I challenge anybody to read this speech in full and not conclude that Obama is presenting a hierarchical view of human flourishing that sees becoming absorbed in something big and political like transforming American society, addressing global warming, or bringing an end to the slaughter in Darfur as the highest form of self-actualization.

Ironically, Obama’s vision strikes me as quite narrow. While it is surely true that striving to overcome the innate tendency to self-love is an important part of what it means to become fully human for almost every person on earth, it does not follow that the highest form of this struggle for everyone is centered on political projects or organized social movements. It also doesn’t follow that society would be better if everybody devoted more of their energies to such crusades. 

At the level of individual psychology, different people are different. Shocking as it is to professional politicians (and maybe readers of political blogs), most people don’t care a whole lot about big causes. If I devote my energies to starting and running my dry-cleaning business and helping to raise my kids, am I a lesser person that my neighbor who works full-time at Human Rights Watch? Surely, it is more realistic and humane to think of a healthy society as a mosaic in which different people play different roles based on temperament and circumstance.

More importantly for a presidential candidate, at the political level, would the United States really be better off if everybody spent less time at the office and devoted more of it to ameliorating global warming, stopping the killing in Darfur, and joining the Peace Corps?  If the U.S. were not the largest and most productive economy in the world, it would not have the world’s most powerful military, it would not have the luxury of trying to solve problems from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East, it would not have created awe-inspiring collective achievements like getting to the moon, and the vast majority of poor households in America would not have already have TVs, cars, and air conditioning

Where do you think all of this wealth comes from?  I’ll give you a hint: not from protest rallies, public-interest internships, and petition drives. One thing that reliably motivates people to work hard and produce economic output is the promise of getting more money so that they can buy things they want (a.k.a. “the big house and the nice suits”).  This isn’t quite as romantic as losing yourself in service to others, but it seems to work pretty well.

Obama is not alone in de-emphasizing this.  His formulation of “it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential” is amazingly close to John McCain’s frequent invocation of “some purpose higher than self-interest.” While McCain obviously has a more militaristic view of this kind of service than Obama does, he also appears to me to find life in the commercial world as morally inferior to a life of public service.

This shared attitude is very worrying. The whole American political leadership class seems to be drunk with imagined power. America represents about 20 percent of the world economy. This has been roughly constant for almost 30 years, but the primary geostrategic fact of our current world is the economic rise of the Asian heartland. It will be very difficult to maintain American power in the face of those who may have deeply contrary interests over the upcoming decades. Simply assuming that will always have this giant ATM machine called the American economy to pay for our political dreams, instead of devoting a lot of energy to figuring out how to make the economy continue to prosper, strikes me as a focus on pretty blossoms while ignoring the roots of the plant.

Of course, if we dig beneath even these economic roots, we find the yet-more-fundamental bedrock of American success: the habits, morals, trust and social cohesion that allow the market economy to function.  Part of the reason that both Obama and McCain are selling this idea of service to a higher good is that there is a market for it. Rising economic inequality in the U.S. is driving a growing sense that we’re not all in the same boat together. 

Most people recognize that there is some tendency for the pure search for private gain at the expense of the public good to consume these bedrock virtues and undermine the success of the economy in the very long-term. But Obama’s calls for joining the Peace Corps and so forth are mostly indulging an adolescent fantasy that we just need to get past our selfishness. He mentions the gigantic international competition that globalization has unleashed only in passing, in order to encourage graduates to become teachers. He doesn’t even try to focus on the point that we must find a way to improve the performance of our economy, which in practice means increasing its market orientation, or else risk being left behind. Of course, this increasing market orientation will, in turn, tend to further increase inequality, and undermine its own long-term success.  Managing through this tension will be the work of statesmen over multiple presidential terms.

Figuring out how to synthesize these competing interests, and explain to new graduates how each of them can contribute in different ways, would have been the act of a statesman. Unfortunately, Obama’s guidance pretty much boils down to: Greenpeace good; Goldman, Sachs bad; U.S. Army not worth mentioning.



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