Designating Heroes

Andy Warhol had it wrong when he idly lisped that, in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes – simply everyone will have his or her fifteen minutes of fame. Perhaps this was no more than a sardonic reaction to the enthusiastic response to his paintings of all those soup cans, which even he must have known were rather nothing much. Maybe it is too easy to generate fame and that amused him – or appalled him. It’s hard to say – he said many odd things. But now what he said about fame is seen as a brilliant cultural insight, used to explain Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian and that odd Snooki woman from Jersey Shore. Maybe they’re soup cans. And fifteen minutes, as Paris Hilton would probably now tell you, can pass rather quickly. These days no one is following her every movement out here in Hollywood, if she’s still here. No one knows if she’s still here – and no one really cares.

But everyone doesn’t get to be famous. Hardly anyone does – there are too many people in the world and not enough time or fame to go around, in spite of whatever you decide to post to YouTube. Forget that clever song or your two-year-old discussing nuclear physics or driving a truck. Not everything goes viral, netting a million hits an hour. Fame is impossible for most everyone and Warhol would have been on firmer ground had he said that, in the future, everyone will be a hero, because we call everyone a hero now. And that’s verifiable. Stay-at-home moms are the real heroes now, or single moms, or working mothers – or they all are, as are the ordinary guys who go to work every single day and do their job, as they’re the real American heroes, as you’ve been told. Or teachers are the American heroes – underpaid and overworked and doing their best for our kids – or maybe the real heroes are politicians like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who want to bust their unions and take away the pensions, and make sure those leaches don’t drain the rest of us good people dry – because we’re the real heroes, not them. It gets confusing.

And maybe the confusion started back on 9/11 with all that death and destruction. The New York Fire Department performed heroically, saving lives, and hundreds of those firemen died. The same with the police on that day – but the jury is out on the mayor, Rudy Giuliani. He saved no one, but he did say the right things. Keeping people’s spirits up might be heroic, if you stretch the term a bit. But it got stretched further. Anyone who died that day is now referred to as an American hero, even if they just went to work that day and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’ve decided that helpless and passive victims are heroes too. And then many on the right decided they were heroes for heroically pointing out that these victims were heroes too, and anyone who said they weren’t was siding with the terrorists, and was just as evil as any terrorist. Somehow everyone became a hero, and the designation kept widening to the point that the word means little now. Everyone’s a hero – but then we all like to think that about ourselves. It staves off existential despair.

For a full discussion of how this designation, hero, has been rendered almost meaningless, see this item for Neal Karlen – a long discussion of how the term has been used historically, sparingly and carefully, and how it somehow morphed into an all-purpose term for anyone who walks around and doesn’t bump into walls all that much. And a key quote comes from an Army staff sergeant during the Vietnam War – “I was told I did heroic things in Vietnam, but I have only a vague memory of them. I did many un-heroic things in Vietnam: mostly hiding and waiting for danger to pass me by.”

But it’s Memorial Day weekend – that time when we honor all those who have died fighting for our country, for us. Those are heroes, although, curiously, Memorial Day was a Civil War thing, a day to honor fallen Union soldiers – those who fought for the country we now have. But soon enough the day was also for the fallen Confederate soldiers, who fought to end the United States as we know it. And then it became for all our fallen soldiers, in any war, and now it seems to be an Honor the Troops holiday, for those now in uniform. It’s been generalized beyond dead heroes, or those who just died while serving in the armed forces, heroically or not. It’s now for the living heroes too.

But this year there was someone who was troubled by all the shifts – on his Sunday morning show, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said he felt “uncomfortable” calling fallen soldiers “heroes” – because the word itself had become a partisan political weapon. And of course if you don’t say anyone in the armed services is a hero, and anyone who ever died while serving in any capacity a hero, then you must be one of those un-American Democrats. For exactly what Hayes said and the various reactions to it see this review of the matter – outrage on the right and others noting that Hayes was talking about the language we use, and how we really should be more careful with it. But of course you can’t limit the use of word once everyone has started using it in a new way. Heck, even the Associated Press just gave up on the word “hopefully” – everyone misuses it, but when everyone does you go with how people now use the word and say that’s how it should be used. And “hero” now means most everyone, one way or another.

Still, anyone who joins our now all-volunteer Army, to serve the country, is, on the face of it, doing something heroic – even if they’re joining to play tuba in one of the military bands. They didn’t have to do that. On the other hand, those of us who have family in the military know that the military, like any large organization, has its share of total jerks – and some of them die. And yes, some of them do bad things – torture and the occasional civilian massacre. But we do call them heroes anyway. It’s just what we do. Chris Hayes will just have to apologize.

But this is still an odd business – the hero business – as it seems much of our political discourse now consists of arguing just who are the Real American Heroes these days. We’ve become a nation obsessed with the heroic, trying to find it everywhere, and endlessly arguing who the real heroes are, not those you thought they were.

And the New York Times’ Paul Krugman recently touched on that, as we do live in odd times:

In the wake of a devastating financial crisis, President Obama has enacted some modest and obviously needed regulation; he has proposed closing a few outrageous tax loopholes; and he has suggested that Mitt Romney’s history of buying and selling companies, often firing workers and gutting their pensions along the way, doesn’t make him the right man to run America’s economy.

Wall Street has responded – predictably, I suppose – by whining and throwing temper tantrums. And it has, in a way, been funny to see how childish and thin-skinned the Masters of the Universe turn out to be. Remember when Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group compared a proposal to limit his tax breaks to Hitler’s invasion of Poland? Remember when Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase characterized any discussion of income inequality as an attack on the very notion of success?

But Krugman calls them spoiled brats, who want immunity from criticism, because they’re really heroes in what he calls a special fairy tale:

Once upon a time, this fairy tale tells us, America was a land of lazy managers and slacker workers. Productivity languished, and American industry was fading away in the face of foreign competition.

Then square-jawed, tough-minded buyout kings like Mitt Romney and the fictional Gordon Gekko came to the rescue, imposing financial and work discipline. Sure, some people didn’t like it, and, sure, they made a lot of money for themselves along the way. But the result was a great economic revival, whose benefits trickled down to everyone.

Yes, that’s a great heroic tale, except it just isn’t true:

For the alleged productivity surge never actually happened. In fact, overall business productivity in America grew faster in the postwar generation, an era in which banks were tightly regulated and private equity barely existed, than it has since our political system decided that greed was good.

What about international competition? We now think of America as a nation doomed to perpetual trade deficits, but it was not always thus. From the 1950s through the 1970s, we generally had more or less balanced trade, exporting about as much as we imported. The big trade deficits only started in the Reagan years, that is, during the era of runaway finance.

And what about that trickle-down? It never took place. There have been significant productivity gains these past three decades, although not on the scale that Wall Street’s self-serving legend would have you believe. However, only a small part of those gains got passed on to American workers.

Well, there is that. But these guys still do think of themselves as heroes, and want to be treated as such:

Vast wealth isn’t enough; they want deference, too, and they’re doing their best to buy it. It has been amazing to read about erstwhile Democrats on Wall Street going all in for Mitt Romney, not because they believe that he has good policy ideas, but because they’re taking President Obama’s very mild criticism of financial excesses as a personal insult.

And it has been especially sad to see some Democratic politicians with ties to Wall Street, like Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, dutifully rise to the defense of their friends’ surprisingly fragile egos.

But you don’t attack our heroes. Everyone knows that. And now Chris Hayes knows that. And these Wall Street guys have the best defense there is – that in American life, they’re the real heroes.

And Digby is appropriately amazed:

The chutzpah of these people never fails to amaze me. But this does explain their shock at being held responsible for this meltdown and the pain and suffering that followed. They really believe they are big heroes and the rest of us are a bunch of ungrateful wretches for failing to acknowledge it.

These people may not be the geniuses they think they are, but they aren’t stupid and they do have to live somewhat in touch with reality in order to do their jobs. So they know they have reaped all the rewards of their heroic Gekkoian deeds. They just think this is a fair distribution of the nation’s wealth and we should all be grateful for the crumbs that are left over. In other words, they believe they are heroes for making each other rich.

Well, that could be one possible definition of what is heroic, depending on your point of view, and Obama is having trouble with it, as Politico’s Mike Allen explains in is his recent long item on how Obama has stumbled out of the gate:

Nothing inspires Democrats like the Barack Obama swagger – the supreme self-confidence on stage, the self-certainty in private. So nothing inspires more angst than when that same Obama stumbles, as he has leaving the gate in 2012.

That’s the unmistakable reality for Democrats since Obama officially launched his reelection campaign three weeks ago. Obama, not Mitt Romney, is the one with the muddled message – and the one who often comes across as baldly political. Obama, not Romney, is the one facing blowback from his own party on the central issue of the campaign so far – Romney’s history with Bain Capital. And most remarkably, Obama, not Romney, is the one falling behind in fundraising.

In short, Obama just doesn’t seem heroic:

Romney has surprised his many critics with a clear and consistent focus on the economy, hands down the issue of the race. After months of missteps, the guy looks steady and disciplined again, much like he did in the early days of the GOP primaries. By playing to his strength, he has masked his weaknesses – for now.

By contrast, Obama has looked unsteady. Some Democrats have watched with dismay as the focus of Obama’s public comments bounced from student loans, to tax cuts for the rich, to trade, to Bain Capital.

And this is trouble:

For the first time, some top Democrats are questioning the strategy coming out of the reelection campaign’s Chicago headquarters, with some agreeing with Newark Mayor Cory Booker that Obama is making it too easy to paint him as anti-business. Ed Rendell and Steve Rattner also have publicly voiced concerns, echoed by many others in private conversations. The result has been a minor but very public split in the party on an issue Obama’s camp hoped would tag Romney with a series of crippling labels: elitist, mean-spirited, anti-worker.

“I feel like they are overly relying on the have-nots out-voting the haves,” said one well-known Democrat close to the campaign. “The economy has gotten a lot better for a lot of people. Instead of making those people feel good about growing businesses, the campaign seems to assume that angry people will prevail. There were successful business leaders in the 2008 coalition, who wanted to use their success to do good. We’re losing that inspiration.”

Yes, heroes are inspiring, but Time’s Joe Klein is having none of it:

The meme of the day in journo-world is that President Obama has stumbled at the outset of the general election campaign. The evidence for this? Well, uh, there isn’t very much, really – except that a few Democrats have criticized his campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital and that Obama’s fundraising is merely humongous, instead of obscenely humongous. The two phenomena are linked, of course: Obama isn’t getting the usual haul from Wall Street because he has outrageously – outrageously! – tried to regulate the bankers who did so much to crash the economy in 2008. The handful of Democrats squawking are people who either (a) get money from private equity firms or (b) have retired and joined Mondo Casino.

But Klein sees things differently than Mike Allen:

I suspect that these Bain attacks are working. Indeed, I suspect the reason that the Obama campaign and the President himself in an extraordinary moment at the NATO press conference last week are so adamant about pursuing this tactic is that it (a) lays the predicate for the anti-Romney campaign to come and (b) has been extremely effective with focus groups. And so, what we may be seeing here is the exact opposite of a stumble.

And the attacks are sort of fair, maybe:

The job losses associated with the private equity brand of capitalism are, in fact, the least important long-term aspect of the story. It’s true, contra Krugman today (although Paul is absolutely right about his larger point, the bogus nature of the bankers’ narrative), that a great many American companies had become stagnant and bloated in the 1970s and that transitions had to be made to keep them profitable, especially in the area of information technology, and these transitions wiped out a lot of middle management jobs but made those companies more productive. Consultants like Bain suddenly became prominent and profitable because they helped companies through this transition.

Romney took Bain to the next logical step – investing in companies that Bain improved. There was nothing wrong, and much that was right, about this in each individual case. Romney is telling the truth as he sees it: sometimes these investments didn’t work out, but often they did and the profits were huge.

But there’s also this:

It’s also true that sharkier sorts, seeing the profits that could be wrung up in debt for equity swaps, jumped into the market in a far less responsible way than Bain had and engaged in the vulture capitalism – we’ll always be grateful to Rick Perry for that term – that has helped to hollow out the economy.

So here it gets tricky for Obama:

It seems to me that Obama’s immediate point is wrong: Romney wasn’t primarily about job destruction and corporate plundering. His larger point – that Romney was not so much about job-creation as he was about profit-creation – is correct, though. But the largest point of all is this: private equity capitalism was all about short-term profits – maximizing shareholder value – rather than long-term growth. It ushered in an era of massive executive compensation and bonuses. It prospered because of tax rules that made debt more profitable than equity, and a “carried interest” tax dodge that enabled Mitt Romney to pay a lower percentage in taxes than your average construction worker. It can be a useful tool in restructuring companies and steering them toward profitability, but it is not the sort of model you’d want to apply to the entire American economy.

So Klein suggests this argument:

A President has to be about long-term growth, not short-term profits – and to the extent that Barack Obama is using the Bain ads to make this larger argument, he is not “stumbling” or attacking “free enterprise,” but he is steering the conversation toward the most important topic this year: what sort of economy do we want to have and how do we get there?

What sort of economy do we want to have and how do we get there? John McCain has the answer:

In defending Mitt Romney’s private sector experience Sunday, top surrogate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) explained that capitalism can be “cruel.”

“This is the free enterprise system. The only place in the world that I can recall where companies never failed was the old Soviet Union,” McCain said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And yes, the free enterprise system can be cruel.”

Yes, Romney will bring on the pain! And it will be good for us all. And yes, John McCain is a famous military hero – a notoriously reckless pilot who got shot down over Vietnam and spent almost the whole war in a prisoner of war camp, mistreated and tortured. It takes a hero to know a hero, you see. But was McCain a hero, or a sad but eventually noble victim of his own swaggering carelessness? That depends on how you define that word, hero. We all use the looser definition. But he did go up there every day into deadly combat. What did Mitt Romney do?

But this discussion went on:

This argument was re-hashed Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” where Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs and Romney adviser Ed Gillespie tried to define the Bain Capital attacks.

“What Bain Capital never did was focus on job creation. … That’s what Mitt Romney is running on,” Gibbs said.

Gillespie argued that Romney’s private sector experience has given him a better understanding of the economy than Obama.

“There is a correlation, Bob, between making money and growing a company and job creation,” Gillespie told host Bob Schieffer. “That’s what President Obama doesn’t understand because he’s never been in the private sector, doesn’t really understand how it works. I think that’s why his policies are so hostile to job creation.”

In short, Obama is not a hero of capitalism. And even if no one can see it, and the evidence is to the contrary, you just have to assume that mysterious correlation between making yourself fabulously rich and creating jobs, the two faces of capitalistic heroism.

But Andrew Sullivan isn’t buying that:

The point is that a president cannot just maximize profits for shareholders. Being a CEO is not the same as being a president. Moreover, even if you think that Romney’s highly profitable adventures in private equity helped the economy more than hurt it, the rigged system in which he paid lower taxes, exploited other loopholes and made money regardless of the outcome in any specific case is not a pretty picture of real market capitalism.

The relevant analogy in this election is not Romney’s time at Bain in terms of his ability to increase employment. It’s his record in Massachusetts as governor – during which time, the state came in 47th out of 50 in terms of job growth. And his proposals for the future – which as I currently see them, would either explode the debt or end Medicare and Medicaid as we have known them.

And would that be heroic? The American people just don’t know anymore. The word has become meaningless. But then we once thought Andy Warhol’s soup cans were high art, and we’d all be famous, for fifteen minutes. We’ll believe anything.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bain Capital, Capitalism's Inherent Flaws, Mitt Romney, Political Discourse and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Designating Heroes

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    If you wish, my comments on Memorial Day, and on heroes, at http://www.outsidethewalls.org/blog/?m=20120528. Especially note the last few paragraphs.

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