Food For Thought

It's the Economy, Stupid

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

Last year in February, I wrote an article titled, “Selecting the 44th President,” in which I noted that the field of presidential candidates was more diverse than ever.

I thought there was an outside possibility that a woman could be nominated and elected president. The probability of electing an African-American president was more than a long shot. There were so many historical obstacles to overcome, but I learned a quick lesson about presidential politics. The economy trumps everything.

In last year’s article, I wrote, “Voters will use a combination of reasons for choosing one candidate over another, ranging from party to personality. I believe the number-one item on most voters’ minds is how the next president’s platform is going to affect their pocketbooks. Social issues are important, but I think they’re a distant second to economics.” It was the economy that made voters look beyond historical prejudice and pull the lever for Barack Obama. February is Black History Month, and it’s also the month in which we celebrate Presidents Day, a fitting time to discuss the changing political environment in America.

Americans won’t elect anyone who isn’t qualified to the presidency. George Orwell wrote in his book, Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The majority of American voters think that President Obama is “more equal” than the rest of us. It is important that everyone be treated equally, regardless of race, color, gender or religion. In the context of the presidency, the phrase, “More equal than others,” means possessing the knowledge, leadership ability, communication skills, integrity and other characteristics that have relevance to the individual’s ability to carry out the duties of the office. Jan. 20 was a proud day for African-Americans; but I think it was equally as proud a day for voters of all races who overcame decades of prejudice to vote on the issue that really counts: Who is best prepared to carry out the duties of the most difficult job in the land?

No one can predict the outcome of the Obama presidency. Some presidents have not lived up to voters’ expectations. It takes years after a president leaves office for a somewhat objective and intellectual analysis of that president’s term to emerge. I have this uneasy feeling that, too often, many voters would like the candidate of the “other party” to fail. Sadly, there are individuals in all political parties who will never support an elected member of an opposition party. That leaves the decision-making power to the few individuals in the middle, whose fluid minds allow them the latitude to adjust their thinking on a wide range of issues. We need more of these voters.

A strong economy is something that everyone wants — good jobs, money in the bank, a rising stock market, low taxes, and good retirement plans. But different people have different ideas on how we can achieve these things. In recent decades, we have fallen for the quick-buck philosophy. Just a few years ago, I had neighbors tell me how much their homes were worth — far more than I would be willing to pay. Many bought homes based on qualification, rather than what they could afford. They thought the value of their homes would always go up. Why wouldn’t they? Every financial advisor or real estate agent was promoting the idea. Buy-sell makes money. I’ve always asked the question, “What did the resale produce?” Selling the same house with no major improvements is similar to a company selling stock after producing nothing other than the stock paper. The new president is going to face a real challenge in getting people to accept working harder for less. Our kids have never been taught to value work. They are products of our teachings, and I don't mean the public-education system. If the company whose slogan implied, “We earn it the old-fashioned way,” had followed their own advice, they still might be here today.

The new president (as well as many other politicians) has noted that education is the key to a good economy. This amuses me. Education is a good talking point, but seldom do politicians invest sufficient time and financial resources to make significant differences. As the economy tanks, schools’ class sizes will increase, fewer computers will be purchased, and teachers’ salaries will be frozen. Merit-pay philosophy as a fix for problems in education will just have to wait. I predict that test scores will remain stagnant. Education is like an underpowered battleship that moves more because of ocean currents than because of the power produced by its engines. We let the tides of the times keep changing the location of the ship, when the ship needs a new nuclear-powered engine. We design new testing schemes to determine the ship’s location, and we continue to see that it’s moving in a circle. I hope President Obama can right the ship’s course so it will finally begin to sail straight and true towards port.

Vocational education is also celebrated during the month of February. Maybe it’s time to think about what our kids will be producing, rather than where they are going to get more education. Recently, radio host Ric Edelman gave a caller the following advice: Be sure you’re sufficiently funding your retirement account before you attempt to fund your children’s college education. The economic downturn brings out the truth. If parents aren’t going to fund the future education of their children, then who is? If I recall correctly, the government recently spent $700 billion or more in a “bailout.” Perhaps some of those dollars should have been put into a future-education fund; after all, as stated, education is the key to a strong economy.

My friend Dave, a CPA, said, “The government should have written a check for $60,000 to every tax-paying person in the country and let them spend it as they see fit.” I thought he was a little “off,” but his idea is beginning to look better every day as I search for the original stimulus-package money. By the time this article is published, the president will have a new stimulus package to help the economy get back on track. Stimulus or no stimulus, what we need is a greater commitment to do a day’s work for a day’s wages. We taught our Harvard and Yale graduates to design financial fantasies that take workers’ hard-earned dollars and cause them to evaporate into Harry Potter land. It’s time to teach them the value of hard work. If our educational system is the key to the economy, then it needs to change by requiring that we earn rewards the old-fashioned way, with hard work that produces something tangible.

The election of President Obama has removed another of our nation’s social barriers and gives credence to the idea, “Work hard and one day you, too, can become president.” The new president’s speeches have centered on hope for the future. It’s good to have hope, but hope is of little value if it doesn’t unlock the ideas of the human mind that can be shared with other minds of a society. We hope his ideas will produce a better life that goes beyond fixing the economy and deals with the many complexities of life in an ever-changing world.

Good luck, Mr. President.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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