Guest column: June Sochen ... American Inventiveness

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By June Sochen


Contrary to all of the doom and gloom news we hear these days, there are many examples of American resilience, resourcefulness and creativity in our society. When Washington is dysfunctional, local communities, neighborhoods and individuals rise to solve problems.

Some analysts recognize this feature of our country and applaud the start-up companies, the small employers and the youthful entrepreneurs. This, after all, is a country that has always consisted of self starters, people who are individualists, rugged and otherwise. Not all cultures can boast of the vitality of their people.

Commentators vary as to their explanation for this American quality. Many look to capitalism as the source for our resilience. The market economy, based upon capitalist principles, rewards hard work, determination, and new ideas. Individual accomplishments are rewarded.

The competitive quality of capitalism, according to this view, is part of its success. Without competition and compensation, people would not be motivated to experiment with new ideas and new products.

Not everyone, however, is enamored with the dark side of capitalism: its cutthroat nature with the winner taking all.

For many analysts, it is American culture, more than the economy, which produces the creative spirit which the world admires. A recent essay in The New York Times by Thomas Edsall had an interesting take on the subject of capitalism. Edsall discusses the views of three economists who argued that the U.S. brand of capitalism is what makes it the world’s leader in innovation. It is precisely the highly competitive quality which rewards innovation and provides the global economy with its growth. According to this view, “cuddly” capitalism, which the economists’ call the Scandinavian countries, benefits from America’s “cutthroat” capitalism. Indeed, they argue that the world’s economic growth would stall without America’s contribution.

The dilemma, it seems to me, is how to remain creative and competitive while providing social services to its citizens. Edsall suggests that the solution might be a recognition of the two tier society that already exists: social welfare programs for the bottom half of the population and low taxes for the upper half so they can be creative and innovative.

I think there are essential things wrong with this argument. While this country was surely founded on the principle of maximum freedom and opportunity for each citizen, it was simultaneously committed to the view that everyone, everyone, had to have a chance to be successful in all areas of life. Government has a role in regulating the economy so everyone plays by the same rules.

Preserving the environment for innovation and growth while protecting our citizens can be accomplished by, what I would call “humanistic” capitalism. Both cuddly and competitive capitalism are extreme and highly simplistic concepts. We never had a truly laissez-faire unregulated capitalism and we don’t have cuddly capitalism. Indeed, most European countries (Sweden is a good example) that have a more vibrant social welfare state than we have also have a capitalistic system. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

Examples abound in this country of ingenuity, of people thinking outside the box. The result demonstrates the vitality of the entrepreneurial spirit within the bounds of good government. They are not mutually exclusive.

Two of my favorite recent illustrations of American creativity point to small, often unnoticed, actions by individuals trying to experiment and/or make a difference in peoples’ lives. The first example is winemakers who are experimenting with growing cold-weather grapes in Northern New England. This has not been done before and it is a perilous venture. Yet it typifies the risk taking quality of Americans.

The second example is a not-for-profit activity that shows the same inventiveness and creativity but applies to bettering lives. A blind woman in the Midwest has begun leading groups of blind children through forests to hear birds. She trains them to distinguish the sounds of different species of birds, thus empowering these children to become experts in bird-watching.

The first example, if successful, will yield a profit for its clever winemakers, perfectly in tune with the principles of capitalism. The second illustration, not geared to the profit motive, will improve the quality of life for an important segment of our population.

Attending to the needs of all members of our society can be achieved while creating new products, new services, and new ideas. Humanistic capitalism embraces the best of both systems and insures the continuation of the innovative spirit. New products that improve peoples’ health, for example, can turn a profit for the manufacturers while helping people. All kinds of win-win experiments keep America vital.

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