A Tale of Two Languages

Posted: Feb 08, 2011 5:13 PM
A Tale of Two Languages

Here's a chunk of the problem with the proposed reconciliation of business and the Obama administration. "We're trying," the president said, in addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this week, "to run the government like you run your businesses -- with better technology and faster services."

Not that there's anything wrong with better technology and faster services. The reason for the non-crystalline ring of the presidential rhetoric is that neither advantage the president imputed to business really explains why business succeeds at business better than government does.

What the president left out was imagination. And creativity. And a spirit of to-hell-with-it-let's-see-if-this-thing-works. The intangibles, not the tangibles, make business go. The spirit that animates business -- at its best as well as its worst -- works best in a climate of freedom, the kind of climate administration policies have been undermining; hence the president's visit to the Chamber of Commerce headquarters for some kiss-and-make-up.

Obama's decision to be "neighborly" toward the chamber -- whose views and activities he has many times bashed -- has to be counted as a worthwhile step. Just to intimate the need for cooperation between business and government -- after months of rhetorical and legislative, attacks on the banking, insurance and oil industries -- offers hope, if not in 72 oz. sacks.

The whole thing brings to mind the story about Mark Twain's wife standing behind him as he shaved, trying to tame his language by repeating every swear word he uttered. "My dear," Twain is supposed to have said, "you have the words but not the tune."

The pro-business tune Obama sought to sing for his audience of business executives lacked the lilt of liberty -- the attribute at the center of business success and, yes, job and revenue-creation, which was what the presidential visit was presumably about in the first place. Government bureaucracies obviously don't work on the basis of spirit and risk. Their mode is top-down. Yes, sir, yes, sir, at once, is the theme, only they rarely mean "at once" in the way businessmen mean it; what they mean is once the studies and reviews and reports are in and a thousand OK's work their way down the chain of command.

Businessmen love slashing Gordian knots in twain with swords of tempered steel. Who ties those knots in the first place? Too often, the public's self-styled servants drawing government checks.

Obama attempted a kind of Aristotelian gloss in telling the chamber, "The perils of too much regulation are matched by the dangers of too little regulation." "Matched"? That's a bit of a stretch, even when we take into account, as all should, the value of regulations desirable for public safety and the rule of law.

Total lack of regulations equals total anarchy -- not even any traffic lights. "Too much regulation" is a condition that describes the constraints facing -- to name two industries --- oil and banking, both so closely supervised by government as lately to impair employment and innovation.

The president used one word familiar to patrons of the marketplace -- "invest." That's what he wants business to do -- "invest in America" for the sake of jobs, etc. He used the same word in the State of the Union message with a different spin. The idea there was Spend Taxpayer Money on Green Energy and the Like. The difference? Business -- with the spirit of risk and venture Obama doesn't appear from his rhetoric to acknowledge -- pours money into a project with a clear, distinct idea of profits to come. A government "investment"? You equate that kind of money transfer with bridges to nowhere and ethanol subsidies: things government does inasmuch as from those things government expects voter gratitude.

The Chamber of Commerce and the president don't talk the same language. To them the same words mean different things. The words they speak past each other's heads. Oh, yes -- better by far the two parties should be talking than fighting. How much better if one of those parties -- guess which -- studied up on who started the fight and why?

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