January 1, 2011

Time for a Fresh Start

“Hope springs eternal….” –Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man,” 1733

The new year brings with it a sense of hope that 2011 will be the year when our democracy and political discourse stabilize, when our leaders will once again have the courage to lead with wisdom, and when quiet talk and mature reflection replace the shrill, the sensational, the rankly partisan and the self-serving tendencies that have dominated Washington for the last two years.

Two major events are the reasons for that renewed hope.

The first of these was the November election. We at MSCI don't celebrate that sea change in the makeup of Congress for partisan reasons. Rather, we see the election as the latest of many examples of the wisdom of our Founding Fathers (and the founding mothers who stood beside them). The 1787 Constitutional Convention that set the foundation for our nation was, in some ways, a gathering of extremists—revolutionaries, certainly, but also a collection of men who, like today, held radically differing views of states' rights, central governments, taxation, individual rights, business and trade vs. the farm-based culture, and much more. In her marvelous study of the convention, titled “Miracle at Philadelphia,” Catherine Drinker Bowen recounts the many experimental efforts among the colonies to reconcile widely differing views of public policy, beginning with the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639. “Trial, error, success, retreat,” she wrote. “Plans of union and plans of government, until, four years after the Treaty of Paris, Americans attempted the grand national experiment.”

That experiment included built-in mechanisms that force people of opposing viewpoints to work together for the national good. Three centers of power, for example (the president, Congress and the Supreme Court), as well as a bicameral legislature. Elections that force members of the House of Representatives to submit to public judgment every two years. And since then, through more than two centuries of trial and error, we have evolved rules, regulations and relationships that all point away from extremism and toward the essential bedrock of democracy—a system that makes compromise possible among divergent interests.

Our November election reinforces the wisdom of this deliberately difficult arrangement. Balance has been restored to Washington, and that means the art of compromise must revive there if anything meaningful is to occur.

Second, President Barack Obama has demonstrated, however grudgingly, that he understands the need for compromise if the public is to be served. Even as he denounced “tax breaks for the rich,” the president championed the tax-cut compromise that means all Americans and all businesses will retain the money they need to pay the bills, keep the factories producing and add the jobs our nation needs. Obama reached the compromise not with extremists of his own party, but with the Congressional Republican leadership—a first step, we hope, toward détente among the warring factions of the last two years.

Reflecting on the miracle of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington said those who opposed the new Constitution would do “more good than evil” because by opposing the document, they “called forth, in its defense, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light on the science of Government.” In other words, through debate, the art of beneficial compromise would be perfected.

Alexander Pope accurately observed that despite our darker natures, “hope springs eternal.” For business and for the well-being of the nation, the election and tax compromise point the way toward renewed hope. A finer demonstration of the genius of our democracy there could never be.