Thursday, March 26, 2009


In 1899 the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Charles H. Duell, is reported to have claimed that “Everything that can be invented has been” and said that he would retire because the U.S. Patent Office would no longer be needed (Duell resigned, but for other reasons). If true, apart from demonstrating a less than creative sense of imagination, it appears that Duell had bought into the notion that society – and creativity – tended to drift toward a sort of equilibrium, where inventiveness, curiosity, and other human developments stabilized.

In this case, Duell may have been so impressed with trains and other inventions of his day that he led himself to believe society had reached the limits of its creativity. This line of thinking - whether Duell fell into it or not - is real and reflects something else about human nature: a tendency to embrace ideas that reinforce what we want to believe.

This explains, in part, why we create pleasing and wishful theories that help us make sense of our world. In relationships we create theories about love and marriage. In markets we create blissful scenarios about market players doing the right thing in the pursuit of profits and wealth. The problem with this practice is that people who search for certainty in impractical or outdated theories about the world have trouble understanding how the world really works, or seeing the possibilities of human creativity.

Take, for example, what we knew before 1492. We didn’t know what lay beyond the horizons of the oceans so we created a theory that said “the world is flat.” It provided many in society with certainty – you will fall off the earth if you sail too far. While most accepted this world view, others were not satisfied. The adventurers - who were warned and criticized for their recklessness - would cut a path to the New World and change world history.

So it is in our political world today. Led by GOP Senator Mitch McConnell, republicans are now saying that President Obama is spreading himself too thin because he's trying to do too much. They are flat earthers. If they lived 500 years ago they would be burning witches because the offending "witch" said or did something they did not understand. Around the fire they would no doubt be muttering something about the witch not "being with us, so she must be against us."

While we can't say all republicans are medieval in their thinking, I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that they are the new Charles Duell's of our time.

Wedded to failed theories about tax giveaways to the rich (supply-side economics) and impractical notions about the virtues of market players in deregulated markets (laissez-faire), republicans are criticizing President Obama for, essentially, thinking big. This is what's happening.

As I've noted before, republicans are deathly afraid that President Obama's ambitious program might be successful. Obama's success would relegate their outdated ideas to the fringe of our political world ... they are afraid that President Obama will make them politically obsolete for the next generation. It's that simple.

So when republicans in Congress say they see "socialism" on the horizon what they really see are witches. This is why they search for truth in pithy but empty maxims, which embrace a status quo that Charles Duell might find comfort in. It also explains why they want President Obama to fail. They're afraid for themselves, and what they see in a future if President Obama is successful.

- Mark

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