An Interview with Peter Kiernan, Author of Becoming China's Bitch
April 16, 2012
It's an election year, a year in which everything will invariably be colored by politics. This is especially true when discussing small business, entrepreneurship, and the economy as the candidates are certain to do—ad nauseam. I recently reached out to Peter Kiernan, a successful businessman, philanthropist, entrepreneur, corporate and government advisor, and the author of the recently released and provocatively titled Becoming China's Bitch, to get a view of the challenges we face and how we can refocus the debate from what he calls "The Radical Center.
You open the book bemoaning the current atmosphere of scaremongering and hyperbole in our national debate, yet the title of the book itself is, self-admittedly, quite provocative. Can you tell us why you settled on the title, Becoming China's Bitch?
I deliberately chose a provocative title for two reasons: to act as a defibrillator and to command attention. The shock was intended to waken us from sleepwalking when it comes to really understanding why we are differently divided as a nation today. Going back to the pre-framer days, our nation has always been characterized by divide, debate and from time to time malice over issues. But in each of the prior periods we developed compromise and consensus on extremely vexing problems.
Today's divide is different.
We have created an architecture of divide that flourishes with rise of far right and far left. There are multi-billion dollar engines of division that carry with them sufficient reach, capability and capital to lead every chess match to a stalemate.
Unless we understand this architecture we can never thaw ourselves out.
Among the most prominent elements is the multi-billion dollar business of talk television and opinion radio. More than ever before consumer broadcast choice and preference can be directed and fed with programming and ideological enthusiasms. News has evolved from the once objective big three anchor men to the opinionator class of information sharing where prerequisite skills may be news gatherer or comedian or professional wrestler.
Less obvious but even more impactful are changes to the cycle of policy formulation. Lobbying has evolved into a huge enterprise—$6 billion plus in revenues in the last 24 months involving over 15,000 extremely talented researchers, analysts and former members of the House, Senate and Federal leadership. Gone are the days of the stereotypical wine and diner whose boozey application of charms and attention supported corporate wish lists in the Congress. The game is far more broad gauged and sophisticated today. And there is much of our governing and rulemaking that is significantly supported by the new professional lobbyists—they are like an outsourced professional class of government operatives who stay at their post even as the elected and appointed officials whom they advise come and go with the political winds.
Another element of the influencer class is the selectorate—people of enormous influence who are in the room when you and I are not there. Think tanks have evolved too. They are increasingly well capitalized, some with endowments bigger than small colleges. Others enjoy robust funding from wealthy benefactors. Think of policy formulation as a cycle rather than a discrete event. At key points in this process think tanks can provide research, coaching and well-timed two page memoranda sent to precisely the right policymaker. Think tanks also carry great convening power and play a role in helping legislators and federal operatives access to important people from around the globe. England has its shadow government; our answer is an extraordinary collection of experience and great minds under the banner of think tanks. These well financed organizations are blessed with some exceptional talent. Well-timed communications, lectures, policy briefs, and major research initiatives can have profound impact on the outcome of our policy.
The sophisticated deployment of these resources leads to a new level of paralysis. We have become somnambulists as a nation even as these think tanks are cited tens of thousands of times a year in the media. Brookings alone publishes a book a week. So think tanks operate on two levels: behind closed doors at the important sessions, and in plain sight with 27 or 30 thousand media citations a year. In the marketplace of policy ideas, these are the ultimate brokers.
It is counterintuitive to consider our inability to act forcefully as costless. But nevertheless we hear endlessly of the virtues of delay. My provocative title is meant to assign a cost to our intransigence. It clearly is outside some people's comfort zone. But any cursory review of the book indicates that the book is really about America far more than it is about China. Though our tango with China as our leading lender and trade counterparty means our fate and theirs are intertwined for as far as the eye can see.
Can you talk a bit about how, though we produce and consume more news and media today then ever before, our attention is being diverted away from the real issues we're facing as a nation, and we may actually be less informed?
One of the fascinating developments in the history of how we "get informed" in our nation is the role that choice has played in altering the steady and objective news that used to emanate from the Big Three TV Networks decades ago. Just as the cable universe expanded with the rewiring of our nation, radio hosts and shock jocks, entertainers and comedians all found outlets for a more interpretive and impressionistic slant on the news.
The surge in the internet has also played a role in speeding up the transmission of news, often forcing individual readers to be their own editors in chief. Increasingly people are creating their own independent ways of being informed. Often the practice involves searching for shows on TV and radio and selecting hosts or even internet sites or bloggers who feel much the way you do. This cocooning has led to intense followership and viewership ratings creating almost the opposite of broadcasting... narrowcasting. And in the give-and-take world of the web, it means finding your voice to share in places that wish to hear it. Blogs and chats pervade and opinion flourishes—often at the expense of objectivity and even at the expense of the facts.
You call yourself a Radical Centrist. Can you explain what that means, and what role there may be for those of us in the vast center to help refocus the debate on the issues we face as a nation rather than the petty, polarizing partisan fights currently amplified by lobbyists and the media?
Tip O"Neill famously said of moderates "They are always around when you don't need them." Well we don't need them now. It takes great courage today to break ranks from a rigid ideology to find the right answer if it leads you away from your party. Radical centrists believe that no ideology has a monopoly on solutions. Sometimes the right has a keener sense of how to resolve a problem and sometimes it's the left. Radical centrists celebrate common sense solutions rather than blind adherence to a particular political persuasion. In my book I outline ten challenges that vex our nation and beg for an orchestrated solution. Many of these solutions will involve difficult compromisers and leaders will have to cross party lines to implement the necessary changes.
Radical Centrists stand with the problem solvers, particularly when elected officials do something brave. Radical Centrists don't vote like invertebrates. Standing for the independent common sense view is as central to the American core values as its DNA.
Resisting the centrifugal forces that swirl us to extremes is a courageous act—hence pairing the more passionate word "Radical" with the more typically moderate word "Centrist." Radical Centrists vote with their eyeballs and switch the channel if the opinionators are blaring. They stand with their legislator when they cross party lines and they reward their leaders for being brave and being problem solvers.
What is the difference between a Radical Centrist and a moderate? Can you talk about the idea of gentleman giants, and how we can affect the world with greater personal humility—rather than belligerence?
While the first part of your question was answered in the last entry, the second part reflects an astute reading of the book. In it I celebrate the gentleman and gentlewoman giants one encounters in every walk of life: Lena Horne, Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Kurault, Bonnie Raitt, Christine Lagarde, Chuck Yeager, Sully Sullenberger... you know the drill.
We need to channel that distinctly American character into our leadership and into our day to day discussion. Read through the vitriol and venom on most political chat rooms, message board and many sharing venues on the web and anyone can attest that we have lost a bit of our common courtesy in the discourse.
It's not a matter of politesse, but practicality. Once some blowhard has ruined the barbecue or blown up the dinner party, civil conversation rarely results. Tolerance and a willingness to stretch to accommodate were hallmarks the framers brought to the Constitutional Congress—even when they vigorously disagreed.
It boils down to what defines winning. Is it the perturbation and complete frustration of any advance by the opposing party? If that is winning, then our leaders are world champions. Of course that victory isn't shared by Americans at large.
Ben Franklin is purported to have said something which captures the idea: "Compromisers don't make great heroes, but they do make great democracies."
Can you give us a brief description of what the key issues are in your mind—the "ten catastrophes" as you call them in the book—and an idea of how we as individual citizens can come together to begin addressing them?
If any one of us were asked to enjoy the privilege of command we would begin our task by listing 20 or 30 challenges we all face. Naturally we might arrive at a different list of top ten priorities. But we would make a list of ten true vexations which demand resolution and then we would commit to devising a way to resolve each one together.
If you look at our history that's how the truly great things in America were created, by a grand compromise hammered out together. That approach gave us our Constitution, Woman's Voting and other rights, Civil rights and forged some of our greatest infrastructure and technology achievements.
My ten issues are these: (I recognize yours may differ)
- Our studied indifference to a thoughtful relationship with China\
- The Silver Surge of Aging Americans and the opportunity to craft a Longevity dividend
- Our shifting Labor Movement and our determination to adopt pension and entitlement promises that will never be kept
- Our patchwork quilt of same sex marriage laws creating a second class citizenry
- Our 16 Federal Agency 100 Congressional Committee front line against terror
- Our willingness to allow Tobacco, Drug and Alcohol Abuse to create a $700 Billion annual cost to society
- Our three Untouchables: Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare—all a half a century plus in age and all desperate for modernization and upgrade. And our inability to cure our most threatening diseases because we are ignoring the right problems and solving n the wrong ones
- Education is slipping while our prison population has more than doubled since 1990
- Our short sighted and timid Immigration policy
- Our complete unwillingness to bravely forge an energy policy.
But in almost anyone's book energy, education, health care and our role as world leader would be in the top ten. The real question for Americans is who can you trust to solve these problems intelligently and with force and visor? Washington leaders? Wall Street? Your Church? Your political party?
My answer and my book's premise is that we have delegated too much responsibility to people who simply cannot get the job done. The time has long past for Americans to reframe their relationship with their leaders and their government. The time for a radical return to the common sense solutions of the founders and the tough-minded compromises that have marked our path every decade since the framers is now before us. Denying the problems or postponing them will mean at the least that China surpasses us economically. But the toll is far worse than some jingoistic ranking. Throughout our history, America has stood for something and we have felt great pride in what that culture meant around the globe.
What I ask is not a journey to a far off place, but a return to the core of who we are. Henry Adams wrote his expansive nine-volume history of the United States and covered only 17 years. He postulated that by 1817, the end of the Madison Presidency, America was a settled country in terms of national temperament. At an extremely young age, the American character was already determined and Adams put his pen down. America's role in the world was predetermined.
It is with urge to rekindle that quintessential American spirit that I picked my pen up.