It’s that time of year again when I vacation with the President and his family on Martha’s Vineyard. Well, we are not exactly together. But the 3 miles that separate us make it almost seem as if we were. The Big O, his lovely Michelle and the girls are just down the road apiece in Chilmark. “Up-island” we call it here on the Vineyard.
Each MV August, since Bill and Hillary’s well-publicized vacations in the late 1990s, I have a chance to think about the year that has passed. More than any other time, as the hot days are ending and the turning of the leaves just weeks away, late summer is an opportunity to reassess progress made or lost.
The arrival of President Obama reminds me of the tremendous HOPE we held just three years ago. I was in Washington for the inauguration. The streets were filled with cheering joyful crowds who ignored the freezing temps against the vision of a new America—an America where fair play and social justice reins; where small business is on equal footing with Big Business, where working and middle classes have access to the same economic opportunities as the wealthy, and a level playing field established for all citizens that honored our forefathers’ promise of democracy.
Yet 30 months later, the American Dream of equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remains unfulfilled. A promise of change that never came—a mantra of “Yes, we can,” that has sadly become “No, we cannot.”
2011 has been one of the most challenging years to date in American political and economic history. It has left many of us who believed in the possibility of “change” deeply disappointed—in our leadership and in each other.
Dreaming the Dream
Martha’s Vineyard, contrary to popular folklore, is not a bastion of elitism and privilege. I discovered the island in 1998 when I hopped a boat from Nantucket and returned every summer since. On the Vineyard, I found a vibrant socially, economically and ethnically diverse culture that reminded me of my beloved New York City without the edge. What the Big Apple would be like if everyone were high on Huxley’s soma.
People are socially concerned here. The wealthy help the struggling as a matter of civic duty. This is a conclave of liberal progressivism that makes New York seem almost conservative. Islanders have a deep sense of community and shared sacrifice built into their psyche. It is quite the opposite of the elitism of other Northeast resorts and its own public image.
The diverse local culture is comprised of liberal Jewish intellectualism, mainstream Boston Brahmanism, and the oldest affluent African American community in the United States. The latter is what surely brings the First Family here. President Obama has many friends on the Vineyard—among them Harvard Professors Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and Charles Ogletree. Gates describes the uniqueness of Vineyard race relations: “Martha’s Vineyard was one of the first resorts at which black people could purchase property…The island must have the highest concentration in the world of successful, middle and upper-middle class black people.” People of all creeds and colors feel welcome here.
That first Monday in August some 14 summers ago coincided with an annual summer event hosted by the late Washington Post satirist Art Buchwald called, “Possible Dreams.” The jokester Buchwald auctioned off “dreams” donated by fellow American legends including tennis with (my hero) Mike Wallace, a sail around Nantucket Sound with Walter Cronkite, a musical interlude with Carly Simon, dinner with the Dansons, or lunch with David McCullough…just to name a few. He spoke warmly and with great humor to his celebrity buddies cajoling them to spend, spend, spend—all the while reminding them why they were there: “To serve the working people of Martha’s Vineyard who serve us all year around.”
All Dream donations go to Martha’s Vineyard’s Community Services (MVCS) to support medical, childcare, counseling, and disability assistance for working class islanders that government agencies do not cover. Buchwald added in serious tones: “Without them, we would not be able to enjoy this island the way we do.”
The message was clear: We have a responsibility to give, not just take, from the community that supports us. “Possible Dreams” inspired me to imagine something better for our world from that very first Vineyard day. An MVCS core value declares that “the dignity, health, safety and well-being of each individual and family…are human rights, not privileges.” These sentiments echo my own.
As we suffer the continuing stagnation of an economic recovery that never arrived, and the seemingly limitless inertia and impotency of government leaders, I ponder the connection between human dignity and economic prosperity. Have we arrived at this moment of financial struggle to dream the impossible? Is the change we were promised only a pipedream and illusion?
In 2009, dramatic and welcome change seemed possible. Two years later, the debt ceiling debacle, the S&P downgrade, the monster mortgage mess, the turmoil of the markets and lack of clear direction leaves most of us darkly disillusioned. Where do we go from here, we wonder? How can we fix a broken system when those charged with doing so seem incapable of the task? How can we rely on leaders for justice and equanimity when they are completely absorbed in their own ego and ignorance?
With one year to go before the new election, truly anything is possible. Obama could find the courage of his convictions; Michele Bachman could cease exorcizing homosexuals, and Rick Perry could gain the ability to recognize a melting glacier when he sees one. Miracles do happen…but what if they don’t?
Since my last blog reporting on the call for “Shared Sacrifice” from Warren Buffet, I have fielded many passionate and concerned responses. One was from a Goldman Sachs partner and former mortgage securities trader Jacki Zehner who supported tax increases if the government acted fiscally responsible.
“Raise taxes but also control spending. Entitlement programs must be modified. Encourage and support private philanthropy at all levels – let’s dig in and help each other at multiple levels. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Business and finance people inherently understand that practical and effective solutions are urgently needed. Do what you can, with what you have. This is our call to arms. We must help ourselves by helping each other. Each one of us is being called to act.
Despite our mounting debt woes, our money continues to be squandered in all directions except where it needs to go. People become justifiably angry when they discover that the largest, most well-funded banking institutions in the world received trillions in bailout cash while small to medium sized enterprises are starved for capital.
A recent article in Bloomberg revealed that in addition to the $160 billion in bailout money spent by the Treasury, the Federal Reserve flooded “Wall Street aristocracy with $1.2 trillion in secret loans.” Granted the Fed did this to stave off another Great Depression, but from the ground-up it looks like a two-class system: One for aristocrats and another for plebes. So much for democracy, so much for the promise of change, so much for the New American Dream.
In this summer of our discontent, we find ourselves bereft of hope. We cannot turn to any branch of government for help, because help is not forthcoming. Our lawmakers are effectively useless. They prance, preen and pretend to be proactive; they spend our money indiscriminately; they pamper themselves with tax dollars, and yet they cannot resolve any critical economic and social issue. Much of their partisan bickering is spent on slinging mud and self-aggrandizing accolades and they forget about practical solutions.
One of my houseguests this weekend, a former superstar investment banker from a global financial institution expressed that power in the hands of those without character and integrity is dangerous. He was speaking about the current state of politics, but he was also referring to the 2008 market collapse when he left the industry.
When my friend applied to his global commercial bank in the early 2000’s after graduating from a top U.S. business school, the interviewer asked him to answer a simple question on a standard application form:
“The financial industry is made up of thieves and pimps where good men die the death of a dog. Which one are you?” My friend replied cleverly: “A thief…I steal people’s hearts.” He was offered a 6-figure job selling structured financing products.
What struck me most about his words was the choice we have to make in our current economic environment. Are we thieves and pimps who get financially rewarded or good men and women destined to suffer? And is this really our only choice?
Act I, Scene V, Hamlet tells Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in your philosophy.” Somewhere, somehow we must have more options than stealing, prostitution or dog deaths.
The bank my dear friend worked for was none other than the currently troubled Bank of America. The bank’s cryptic and arrogant philosophy seems to have entwined it in its own snare. A thief is jailed; a pimp is reviled and dogs are man’s best friend. The distorted view of profiting on someone else’s misery has brought us to this moment of social and economic upheaval.
I think of all this as I contemplate the year that has passed. Obama is no longer our Great Hope. Congress is at best a costly circus act. And the state of our economy is poised for even greater peril.
Yet while we need practical solutions and courageous leaders, we also need an inner transformation of the way we view money, profit and business. The 20th century model model of profit without purpose brought us here; the mortgage market disaster, the lack of responsible leadership, restraint and regulation, and the underlying belief that “greed is good” has fueled it all. It isn’t just Wall Street. It is all of us—every one of us who never complained or cared when times were good. We only awakened when our fortunes evaporated before our eyes.
One thing I learned from Possible Dreams, Art Buchwald and fellow islanders over a decade ago is that we function best as a society through an ethic of mutual support. To flourish, we need a sense of community between us that has a reciprocal component of give and take built right into the system. This is truly the task at hand now: To create a world where dreams of a better more socially just America are possible. Since it won’t come from our leaders, we must be our own champions of change. No one can save us except for ourselves.
So what will it be America? Are we thieves, pimps, or good men and women? The choice is ours.
Monika Mitchell’s latest book Conversations with Wall Street: The Inside Story of the Financial Armageddon and How to Prevent the Next One will be released in November 2011.
For advance copy contact: firstname.lastname@example.org