Friday, December 16, 2011

An iPod for the Economy

My son Grant, an otherwise brilliant man, is a Mitt Romney fan. Grant was an enthusiastic Obama supporter in 2008. His opinion of Obama today can be summarized as: “Sounds great, less filling.”

To give Grant his due, Romney has many good things in his background. His former business, private equity investing, isn’t entirely about stripping assets and cutting jobs. If you want to be successful, as Romney was, you have to invest for future growth. As governor, Romney brought universal health care to Massachusetts and was pro-choice.

But the Republican faithful don’t tolerate political heresy, and neither universal health care nor a woman’s right to choose is in their catechism. So Candidate Romney has slipped on vestments of conservative purity to cover Governor Romney’s tie-dyed-secular-socialist garb. My worry is that he (whoever that is) is beginning to think the coats of many colors look good on him.
(photo from
On the Democratic side, we are suffering from the kind of disappointment one feels when the preacher is possessed by the Devil. Obama promised he would usher in a new era of post-partisan progressivism, but, instead, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner ate his (and our) lunch.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs. As everyone on the planet knows by now, Jobs famously (and arrogantly) said it wasn’t the customers’ job to know what they wanted, it was his job to give it to them. Is it possible that we need more of that kind of thinking, that willingness to be judged entirely by results rather than popularity, in our political leaders? Someone to design an iPod for the economy; an iPhone for entitlement reform; an iPad for tax reform.

I’m not saying we’re children, that we can’t know what we want. What I am saying, though, is that we understand the outcomes we want better than the ways to get there. I love my iPad. I have no idea how it works.

I don’t believe in mysticism. I’m not looking for a cult leader. But I believe there are men and women among us who have staggeringly good ideas. They are not panderers, though, so they don’t run for office. We are the reason they don’t run. They don’t want to have to fight with us to get us to try something new; or risk not getting re-elected if they don’t do what we want them to. But if we were willing to listen to what they have to say, instead of telling them what we want to hear, perhaps we could discover new ways forward.

Most of today’s politicians seem more like hucksters than statesmen. I thought Obama was different (and maybe he is), but we are an impatient lot, and he has not parted the waters. The Republicans have made him look like a naif, and many, like my son Grant, are losing faith in him.

How did Steve Jobs pull it off? How did he make us listen? His designs were compelling, for one thing. You can say that there was less pressure on him to perform because lives don’t depend on mp3 players, but his did. And his products weren’t all about instant gratification. iTunes, one of his greatest legacies, took years to build.

We aren’t going to regain the promise of America if we don’t do the hard and patient work of laying the foundation for the future. If we flock to every quick-buck politician who tells us what we want to hear, we’re going to be left with little more than a lifetime supply of snake oil.

I don’t know all the things we must do to make a safe and prosperous future for our children and our grandchildren, but then I loved music for a lifetime without ever imagining a day when I could carry all my songs in my pocket.