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Zack Exley Headshot

America And The Parable Of The Silly Gardener

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After many successful seasons, a gardener decided he never wanted to get his hands dirty again and resolved to grow his garden without planting. He suggested to his neighbor that she could plant it and keep a portion of the produce, but she already had a garden of her own. He threw seed on top of the hard ground, but it didn't sprout. He got down on his knees and begged the earth to produce, but nothing happened. Finally, he came to his seneses, dug into the ground, planted, and was rewarded with one more bountiful season.

Every industrialized economy in the world, like every garden, was planted. The American economy has seen many planting seasons, but this time around we're that silly gardener who doesn't want to get his hands dirty. We're trying to tempt others into planting with tax breaks and giveaways. We're scattering seed on hard ground by providing little bits of capital to trendy projects. We're on our knees begging, trying to "stimulate" demand, by repaving roads and digging ditches.

Both progressives and the conservatives in America have developed an ideological opposition to planting, directly building industry. Conservatives believe in the power of the seed alone: the entrepreneur. Progressives believe in that too, but also think of the soil and water that nourish the seed: the past invention and infrastructure that make the entrepreneur possible. Both sides have written the planter out of history altogether.

Who plants national economies? In American history it has almost always been an even mixture of the government, the military, and Wall Street. The planters of other industrial economies are all some combination of the same players, in some cases a little more military or a little less banker. The good fortune of America has been that the prevailing interest of its economic planters for almost 200 years was national industrial economic development. The path was not always perfectly direct, but in the end industrial development was always the purpose that trumped everything else. The American Revolution was fought for the freedom to develop our economy instead of langish as a source of raw material and customers for another country's industry. The Civil War was fought for the industrial cause when the Confederacy formed to protect a Latin American style planation economy. Today, however, America's power elite are invested in the world economy as a whole with no particular interest in replanting our economy here at home.

The world's most modern communications and transportation systems were always America's. Some of them, like the canals, telegraph, highways and Internet were planted by the government and military. Others, like the railroads and airlines were planted by a combination of Wall Street, government and the military. The world's most advanced and high-value industries were always America's. Our steel industry, oil industry, and auto-industry were planted mainly by Wall Street. Our aluminum, plastics, and pharmaceuticals industries were planted by the government and military for the second World War.

Don't forget the seed. Railroads, for example, were begun by a thousand local entrepreneurs. But America's national railways were built in a chaotic and messy yet centrally-directed effort by Wall Street, fueled by massive government subsidies, that squashed those local entrepreneurs like bugs. Like most large scale centrally planned economic efforts, there was massive waste and redundancy, but in the end America was covered with rail that served as a new infrastructure on which new generations of entrepreneurs and planners could build.

The world's best communications and transportation systems are no longer America's. The world's highest-value, largest and most dynamic industries are no longer America's. There is only one global industry that America truly dominates: Facebook. It employs 6,000 people.

Americans don't want to dominate. We just want to be able to take care of ourselves by going to work and earning a decent living. To get back to that place, we need entrepreneurs. We need to build on past invention and infrastructure. And we also need to do some gardening. Our elites in government and on Wall Street no longer want to get their hands dirty. It's easier to invest in other gardens that others have planted. Our elite now draws its wealth from the world economy, not the American economy.

End of story?

Not quite. We choose our government. So there is the possibility of a group of Americans stepping up and offering to get their hands dirty by replanting the American economy.

What would planting new industries look like in the 21st century in America? It's our destiny to find out. When you think about how fast, with modern technology, poor countries such as Korea or China were recently able to plant new modern economies, you can't help but wonder what a country as advanced as America would be capable of.

I want to find out what we're capable of.

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