Before it's too late

David Hoppe

In his book The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington offers a cautionary tale about capitalism. The story, which was turned into a movie by Orson Welles, is set in a Midwestern town that could easily pass for the Indianapolis where Tarkington grew up. The action follows the decline of a particular family and much of it takes place in the kind of grand old house one finds on the Old Northside.

The Magnificent Ambersons is set in the very early part of the 20th century. The automobile has just been invented and one of the main characters causes quite a stir by driving one. This is where the cautionary part comes in. The Ambersons drive real carriages - not the horseless kind. As far as they're concerned, automobiles and the people that drive them are noisy upstarts, party crashers. But it soon becomes clear that the automobile and all it represents is an irresistible force that is going to leave the Ambersons' world in the dust.

There's a bittersweet quality about this, of course. The Ambersons' world, for all its arrogance and rigidity, has its share of graces. It provides a certain kind of order to everyone's existence, and it's not easy watching that die.

But die it must. By setting the automobile against the carriage, Tarkington shows that there's a ruthlessness to capitalistic progress. People adapt to it or they're finished. At its most robust, capitalism equals a constant state of revolution in which old orders are forever being overturned to make way for what's new.

The Magnificent Ambersons came to mind not long ago in light of President Bush's assertion that we Americans are, as he put it, "addicted" to oil. Here is what the president said we should do about this: "New technologies will help us reach another great goal, to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."

I guess the president meant this to sound like a battle cry. I'm sorry, but that's like a two-pack-a-day smoker saying he'll give himself 20 years to cut down to ... half a pack a day. We should all live so long.

Our president, along with a lot of the other tycoons and captains of industry in this country, like to think of themselves as defenders of the capitalist creed. It isn't true. They're not really capitalists. A true capitalist would have stood up in front of Congress and the rest of the country and declared that America was going to achieve energy independence, not in 20 years, but in five. A true capitalist would have said the age of fossil fuels is over.

But this president and his friends aren't about capitalism. Capitalism is about creating wealth - it does that better than any system yet devised. Bush Inc. is about defending wealth, and that's not the same thing.

Wealth creation is what sunk the Ambersons in Booth Tarkington's story. Having amassed their fortune, the Ambersons were inclined to rest on their laurels. They look down on people who are hustling to make wealth of their own. As one of the Ambersons says, "Don't you think being things is 'rahthuh bettuh' than doing things?"

Last fall, when Bill Clinton spoke at Butler University, he said that the next great economic boom would turn on the development of alternative energy sources. But developing these sources requires commitment and investment. And, to date, our leaders seem more invested in propping up established forms of wealth than in creating new ones.

Look, for example, at Gov. Daniels' "Major Moves" scheme. At first blush, leasing our toll roads to a private contractor for a lump sum payment seems like a good idea. The state is faced with an array of infrastructure needs and no viable way to pay for them all. This infusion of cash can help take care of that.

But what's the first item on the governor's to-do list? Building a concrete ribbon from Evansville to Indianapolis. Here we are in the 21st century and Indiana's big shots are congratulating themselves over the prospect of a project that might have been conceived in 1950. Sure, the governor is quick to say that "Major Moves" will also help pay for other forms of transportation, but his words lack conviction, specificity or vision. Daniels could be talking about light rail and how it might connect Indiana with cities throughout the Midwest. Instead, he positions the state to be the last best hope for the internal combustion engine.

America is beginning to look like the Amberson family. We've elected leaders who say that government ought to be run like a business. But it turns out that these business leaders are more interested in protecting what is than investing in what could be. So we have the highest paid CEOs in the world, but our health care programs result in more expensive treatments and soldiers are sent to war without the tools to protect themselves. We're giving capitalism a bad name.


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