Friday, January 20, 2017

On being wrong, and the benefit of the doubt

Good morning, Americans. Good morning, world.

Today the United States follows one of the most important rituals of our government, the peaceful transfer of executive power from one individual to another. If you know me at all, you know that the recipient of this power is not the person I supported. I'm out of town today, and won't watch the ceremony.

But I'm still an American. And I'm still alive. And the distinguishing feature of Americans, if we have one, is optimism. We live in a country whose relatively short history is a narrative of improvements. In the United States, things get better. Oh, we might have temporary setbacks, we might have conflicts and disagreements and even tragedy — but things get better. More people move here. More businesses start. More people work. People live longer, live better, have more stuff. The poorest people in the United States still — mostly — have electricity, running water, refrigerators and televisions. We take all that for granted, and quite a lot of us never have occasion to learn just how rare and new it is, in human experience.

This expectation of endless improvement is what's brought us here, today, as a man with no political experience, whose financial obligations we do not know, will stand next to his third wife and promise to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He ran on a campaign that told Americans we were miserable, and that he could fix that. And he won, at least in part, because those of us who aren't miserable didn't believe the ones who said they were.

He says he'll make America great again. Nobody ever pressed him on the question of why and how America isn't great now. Over the last few months, I have asked people who've told me Barack Obama is the worst president in history: okay, I hear you, but tell me how? Show me. Are you homeless? Did you lose your job, your family, your dreams? Yes, entire industries have disappeared in the past 25 years, and more industries will go the same way in the next ten. Show me, tell me, how President Obama was responsible for that, and how he should have fixed it. What did he do wrong? How did he hurt you?

Nobody's given me a good answer. The one substantive response I've gotten is the increase in the national debt under the Obama administration. I'll concede that, for people who agree that government spending shouldn't be used to spur the economy. The problem is finding anyone serious who agrees with that statement. If you want to argue with me, go right ahead. I'll check back with you after Congress passes President Trump's infrastructure bill.

What worries me most about the incoming Administration — and a lot of things worry me — is that this is a group of people who measure success in terms of dollars, and don't understand any other measures of success. "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" becomes "I'm rich, so I must be smart." If you believe that the richest people you know are also the smartest, it's not in my power to convince you otherwise. But that is not my own measure of success.

Let's go back to this idea of improvement, of the United States being a country that improves over time. How does anything or anyone improve? By doing new things, trying new things. Does everyone get new things right the first time? Are all new things equally valuable or productive? Of course not. How do we choose the right improvements, how do we derive the greatest benefits? By making mistakes. By being wrong. By acknowledging the error, and going back to figure out how we make it right.

We have a new President who seems incapable of admitting error. If he cannot admit mistakes, he cannot correct them. He doesn't apologize because he's never done anything wrong. He can't acknowledge that his actions might harm others as they benefit him. If you can't do these things, you can't learn. You can't improve. The whole effort is self-defeating.

Some people are saying that we need to give this new President a chance, that he deserves our support for the sake of the office he holds, and that we owe him the benefit of the doubt. I'll agree with that — paradoxically — if he tells us that he knows he's going to mess up. If he expects to make mistakes, and welcomes the opportunity to learn from them. If he's willing to apologize to the people who get hurt along the way. This seems unlikely, since he's a 70-year-old man whose life has not yet taught him how to do that.

If he can't, and he won't, the American people will have to learn these lessons for themselves. We'll have to recognize our mistake, learn from it, and figure out how to do it right the next time.