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July 1, 2008

THE MEANING OF CHANGE

“Change is one thing, progress is another.”
—Bertrand Russell

In this election season, we are bombarded with messages about change. Yet I am reminded by all the talk and promises of just how elusive real change, or perhaps progress, can actually be when our political process is involved.

Hundreds of thousands of new, young voters are said to be energized by the messages of change that have been the foundation of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Without question, Obama is a politician in full command of the tools of his trade—the speaking and public communication skills that can sway an audience and be, in the right hands, an entrée to genuine leadership.

Yet while he calls for change, he relies on ideas that have been at the heart of Democratic Party politics since the time of Franklin Roosevelt at least. Here’s one: The “rich” must pay their “fair share,” whatever that is, while “ordinary” Americans, often characterized as “hard-working, ordinary Americans,” are given the tax breaks they deserve. As if the “rich,” defined as just about anyone who has found a way to build income beyond the norm, do not work or deserve consideration for the contributions they make to the whole.

Meanwhile, John McCain also talks of how he, too, is an agent of change. Although clearly a Republican maverick, he sometimes sounds a lot like the Republican administration we now have, which the polls say is the least popular presidential administration in our nation’s history. There’s no question that in the totality of his career, McCain has often been at odds with his party’s leadership. But under the pressure of a presidential campaign, faced with the tiny attention span of the national political media, it will be very difficult for McCain to emerge as an agent of change like the newcomer Obama.

At the heart of the question is the risk-averse nature of our political class today. Imagine a new President Obama, ready to cash in on a broad range of his promises on domestic policy, the war, taxes, etc. Either he will propose programs that are Democratic orthodoxy—not change at all—or he will propose programs that recognize the many valid, reasonable and considered points of view of the leaders of his party and, also, of the Republican Party. That’s what he says he can do in and for, “not the red states, not the blue states, but the United States of America.”

Let’s consider, though, who he will work with in Congress. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who, next to the speaker, is the most powerful Congressman, has been in office for 38 years. The average tenure of all Ways and Means committee and subcommittee chairs will be 24.6 years in January 2009. In the Senate, the average tenure of the chairman and subcommittee chairmen of the equally important Finance Committee is 22.6 years. The chairs of the 11 Senate committees most directly involved with manufacturing issues have served an average of nearly 33 years. These are men and women with entrenched political positions, constituencies and donors to whom they owe allegiance. They are not risk takers.

So, who really makes change in America? I suggest that the real agents of change are those of us in business who must daily compete, improve, respond and innovate to earn our paychecks. Had the metals industry during the last 100 years acted like Washington politicians, we would all still be delivering a meager array of commodity products using horsedrawn wagons. Instead, we offer thousands of value-added products and services, delivered when and how the customer wants them, with a spirit of invention that has helped make North American manufacturing the envy of the world.

Which do you prefer, change or progress? Which will you demand when the new administration is in office?