Drift v. Mastery: Finding a path forward in difficult times

Natalie GochnourThe American intellectual Walter Lippmann warned in 1914 that the United States had entered a period of drift. He recognized rapidly changing forces in society and suggested the country should address tensions by creating more balance. Extremism brings drift, moderation brings mastery. There’s something about his thesis that deserves attention today.

As I think about the 2016 presidential election, I’m in a state of denial, depression or desperation. I can’t believe that at this important juncture in history we are left with three bad candidates. I realize that’s a controversial statement if you are a supporter of one of the remaining candidates, but it reflects my sentiments. I’m just being honest.

Sen. Hillary Clinton represents the past, not the future. I respect her abilities, but I worry about her trustworthiness. She’s not my idea of the person who can bind our nation together.

Sen. Bernie Sanders makes a lot of attractive promises like higher education and healthcare for all, but his math doesn’t add up. Studies by the nonpartisan Urban Institute and Tax Policy Center conclude that to fund his proposals, the federal government would have to borrow $18 trillion, more than doubling the national debt. I admire the way he has galvanized a movement, but his economic policies just don’t add up.

Which brings me to The Donald. I’m not going to sugarcoat my views. I think Donald Trump lacks the experience, values and temperament to be our commander and chief, end of story. He won’t get my vote. He’s not my guy as an expression of conscience. Words matter. Policies matter. He lacks the right stuff on both accounts.

So … when it comes to the 2016 presidential elections, I’m in a world of hurt. And this hurt stretches beyond the body politic and into the marketplace.

Economic roots of political turmoil

Loosely defined, I’m an economic determinist. I think much of the travail occurring in the American political system has its roots in an economy that’s not working for many Americans. Donald Trump is not a Republican or a Democrat. He’s an opportunist and a populist. His success stems from the frustration, anger and even fear affecting so many Americans right now. Sanders has a similar story.

At a foundational level, the global economy has wiped out many American jobs. Income inequality continues to worsen and it’s hurting everyone, but particularly those without training. We live in a globally competitive and technologically advanced world. Those with more talent, education and training thrive. Those without skills and education struggle as they try to compete with lower-paid workers throughout the world who have lower standards of living. It’s an equation that doesn’t work. The result is a growing underclass in our country.

I’m an eternal optimist, a gift given to me by my mother. I know we, as Americans, will find a way to get back on our feet again. For me the path forward right now is uncertain, but I continue to believe.

One of the first things we need to do is internalize the seriousness of the moment. The Economist magazine has called the current state of elections in the Unites States, “An American tragedy.” This isn’t fun and games, it’s our country.

The next thing we should do is focus on education. People need marketable skills to prosper. This means post-secondary schooling for almost everyone. It also means we need to invest in our schools, colleges and universities.

Finally, America needs more balance and less extremism. If we want to move past drift and attain mastery, we need to start solving problems. This means pulling the best ideas from both the right and the left. Cut spending where prudent, raise revenue where needed. It’s not either or … it’s a lot of both.

I hope we can unify as a country and get to a better place. We may not have it exactly right in 2016, but we have to keep trying.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.