Hamre: America’s future depends on providing foreign aid

John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaks in the Amphitheater on Wednesday. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in Wednesday’s 10:45 a.m. lecture that America’s future as a global leader depends on developing political health as foreign aid.

“There is just a profound disagreement on where we’re heading as a country with our politicians,” he said, referring to politicians on both sides of the spectrum.

Hamre, who is also a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense, presented “Charting a Development Agenda in a Time of Austerity,” the third lecture for Week One’s theme “Global Health and Development as Foreign Policy.”

Hamre offered a political angle, differing from the medical-focused lectures delivered by Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health, and Sandra Thurman, president and CEO of the International AIDS Trust, earlier this week.

Essentially, Hamre said the U.S. needs to work to earn the respect and popularity of other countries if it hopes to keep the nation secure. Foreign aid is the way to do just that, he said.

Looking into the past

Hamre’s evidence for this conjecture lies in the history of the U.S. — specifically, during the Cold War.

“At the time, we saw a long-term struggle that we had to mount against the forces of international Communism,” he said, “and we set ourselves about the task of developing a strategy to succeed. And that was not a strategy that was based on military might.”

He said the military force of the Soviets was too large for the U.S. to effectively compete. Instead, the U.S. turned to social tactics. The military was large enough to prevent “political intimidation,” he said, but the real battle lay in presenting more superior ideas than the Soviets.

“We would win the Cold War only when the rest of the world wanted us to win and saw our ideas as being worthy of support,” Hamre said. “That was the foundation of our grand strategy during the Cold War.”

These ideas that would win the Cold War included ideologies like representative government, free elections, free and uncensored press, rule of law by independent judiciary, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. This strategy, Hamre said, proved victorious.

Learning from history

After the events of Sept. 11, the U.S. developed strategies that Hamre said should be revised.

“On that day and the days that followed, America was shocked; America was frightened; America was angry,” he said. “We set about a set of policies, honestly, that may have been logical from our own emotional standpoint, but it was counterproductive to our national interests.”

Policies that formed out of emotional responses are still being followed, Hamre said.

He added that these policies, which inspired fear in the rest of the world, damaged the reputation of the U.S.

Then, a tidal wave in the Indian Ocean struck Indonesia in 2004. The U.S.-based Project HOPE provided a ship’s worth of doctors and nurses, but only if the U.S. Navy could get them there. Hamre was a part of forming this partnership.

“In the days after 9/11, America’s popularity in Indonesia was between 17 and 19 percent,” Hamre said. “After the earthquake and the tsunami, America’s popularity went up to 80 percent. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what this says: that when people see America doing what’s good for them, they have a different attitude about us.”

He said the U.S. shouldn’t be lending aid simply for popularity purposes, but it is a requirement in gathering support. If a nation believes it is not advisable to negotiate with the U.S., Hamre said, then that country is a target for a popularity boost.

Application to today’s politics

Hamre said that although foreign aid is not a popular concept among Americans, the U.S. is “hands down the most generous country in the world.” Americans donate six times more per capita than the second most generous nation in the world, he added.

Despite this, Hamre said, offering aid could boost employment in other countries. Afghanistan’s high unemployment rate should be seen as a threat to national security, he added, as it makes those people angry and vengeful. Aid could quell that unemployment.

Furthermore, a study conducted by the World Bank determined that only about 30 percent of a nation’s wealth could be attributed to natural and manmade resources. The rest is attributed to “intangible resources” like the national quality of education and the stability of currency. Hamre said these intangible resources are a direct result of good government.

“The private sector cannot build better banking systems in foreign countries. The private sector is not going to be building better courts and a rule-of-law culture,” Hamre said. “They take advantage of it, but they don’t build it — they can’t build it. These are things only the government can do.”

The government, he said, has to be involved in creating other governments. In contrast, the private sector must be involved in creating sustainable jobs.

To illustrate this point, he mentioned an anonymous food company. The company wanted better farmers for business reasons, so it hired 2,000 agronomists to teach its farmers better farming strategies. The company has now licensed more than 600,000 quality farmers.

The government, he said, would do a poor job at hiring those agronomists. He called the relationship between government and the private sector “a natural complementarity.”

Hamre’s suggestion

Military force, Hamre said, is an inefficient means. Instead, the U.S. must use social and diplomatic tools to remain on top.

In addition, the U.S. needs to “clean up its act” if it hopes to inspire other nations. Hamre met the president of Ghana, who told him the U.S. only gives him lectures, while the Chinese give him money. Hamre said simply talking about inspiration isn’t enough.

“I posit three very simple things,” Hamre said. “We’re trying to build or create healthier people, healthier communities and healthier countries. Now, that’s an agenda that either progressive left liberals or conservative Republicans can embrace.”

Q: What would you propose we do in Afghanistan?

A: I’m sorry; there’s so little time. I thought that would probably come up. Let me give a slightly longer answer to the question. I think it’s so important because it’s on everybody’s minds. My academic training is that I’m a realpolitik structuralist. I believe that there are global power structures that are in our interest that we need to manage. And for a global superpower, we should not get ourselves involved in an area or in a conflict where it takes enormous resources for us to influence the people in the region. We do not have central national interests in Afghanistan. That’s the reality. We got into Afghanistan probably for understandable reasons — the desire for revenge, a way to send a signal to the rest of the world that we won’t tolerate this sort of thing again. Those are the reasons we did this. But what happens when countries go to war is they lose track of what they’re doing, and they start to develop new agendas. The reality is that because we don’t have central interests in Afghanistan, but all of the neighboring countries around Afghanistan do, they have more capacity to manipulate us than we do to manipulate them. I mean, that’s to be very crass about it. So there is no outcome in Afghanistan that they won’t veto if it’s not in their interests. So there is no political solution. We could lose militarily in Afghanistan, but we can’t win militarily in Afghanistan. So we have to have a political solution. And no political solution will work unless it involves the neighbors. What we need to do, I personally feel, that we need to find a way to get out of Afghanistan, and as soon as we can, in a way that doesn’t look like we’re crawling out. It does matter how we get out. A friend of mine said rather brutally, “We will not kill our way to success in Afghanistan.” We will have to have a political solution, and the political solution has to reflect the interests of the neighbors. At one time we had a strategy that made that work, but then we lost track, and we need to recover that. I think we have a little bit of time to get it together, and I think it ought to be our highest priority.

Q: What is the actual percentage of our budget in foreign aid? We would like to see a return on investment; how do we measure return on investment?

A: Foreign aid is — I wish I had the right number — something like $45 billion as a percent of the overall budget. That’s maybe 1 percent, maybe 1.5 percent. I have to say, so much of this is earmarked for two countries, for Israel and Egypt. It was part of the agreement to get them to stop fighting each other. So it is not nearly as much money as people think it is. The size and the amount of the money is quite small in percentage terms. How we measure success is a big issue. And again, I think we have too much of a focus on foreign assistance in that it has to create the jobs. I don’t think that should be its role. I think foreign assistance should be to develop quality institutions where they work with a private sector to build sustainable employment. And I would substantially reshape how we spend the foreign assistance. One of the great contributions of President Bush Jr. was the creation of the Millenium Challenge Corporation. The Millenium Challenge Corporation is designed to be a critique of AID, and it was designed to ultimately replace AID. But at its core, the philosophy was that we will give larger blocks of money to countries if countries prove that they are developing quality institutions to make sure the money’s well spent. That’s not a bad agenda. That’s a good thing. The problem is they only picked the winning countries. They didn’t pick the losers, and frankly, losers need as much help as the winners. So we need both the Millenium Challenge Corporation, and we need aid. We need to reshape this so that it’s about creating quality institutions, and our government frankly has to figure out how to cooperatively work with the private sector. We’ve gotten in a bad way in Washington where our government thinks it can’t talk to the private sector because it might be a conflict of interest. Give me a break. That’s what government is supposed to do. They’re supposed to help build jobs. They’re supposed to build the economy. That’s a good thing. So we’ve got to change our thinking in the government too.

Q: Can you or can’t you give this talk to Congress?

A: Well, they won’t ask me. And I would give it to them. I have had conversations with individual members of Congress. I have absolutely no problem saying publicly what I’ve said to you here. I thought this was public. The problem with Washington right now is Washington is a giant self-licking ice cream cone. It’s just enjoying itself. And I think it’s completely decoupled from where Americans are. And I think a good example of that is the deficit discussion. There isn’t an American who doesn’t know that the only solution to this is going to have to involve both cuts in entitlements and increase in taxes. And yet we’ve got two political parties that are both playing games with their base so that they can hold the loyalty of their base when they go to the next election. Well, frankly, its not their base that will going to get them elected, it’s the center centrists that will get them elected. At some point, we’re going to have to let honest judgment trump tactical political politics.

Q: How can we justify spending so much money in other countries when we have such huge needs ourselves for health and education?

A: Well, we do have huge needs here; there’s no question about that. But if we had 11 people who undertook a clever terrorist action, it probably forced us as a nation to spend $2 trillion. I would rather find a way to spend a couple of tens of millions of dollars or a couple billion dollars over time to remove that problem, because we took ourselves over the cliff with how we reacted. And we are going to do that as a nation. So let’s find sensible ways to spend our money that helps our national security interests. I only recommend this because it’s in our national interests. While it may speak to my religious convictions, I’m here today as the former Deputy Secretary of Defense to say that this is in our national security interests.

Q: Will existing NGOs be able to fill the gap created by reduction in government aid?

A: No. NGOs play an absolutely essential role, and I should have mentioned them. I was inadequate in my presentation. I think the profit-seeking part of the private sector and the non-profit-seeking part of the private sector and the government play essential complimentary roles. They cannot replace each other. NGOs, like businesses, are not going to create rule of law. They can contribute to civil society, which becomes a foundation to sustain rule of law, but they cannot create it. NGOs play an absolutely crucial role, but they are not a substitute for government. And the profit-seeking part of the private sector is not a substitute for the government where we need the government to do its work.

Q: If you were the president of the United States, what are the first three major actions you would take?

A: Oh, gosh. I believe that American citizens are actually a lot smarter than our politicians give them credit for, and so that an honest discussion with the citizenry about what we’re facing would receive a positive response. I hate to be saying this, but I thought President Obama made a huge mistake to reject the Simpson Bowl’s commission. I thought the Simpson Bowl’s commission layed out a sensible pathway forward to start eliminating the deficits, and I thought the president failed by not embracing it. It would have been politically risky, but I think it’s something we should have done. And I think it’s still going to be required at some point. So I think an honest discussion with the American public about what we’re facing and what we need to do would actually be welcome by the public. That would be the first thing. The second thing I would try to do is to change the public sentiment we have on terrorism. We have created the image in our public’s mind that anything bad that happens is an existential threat to America, and that’s not true. Let me set aside the case of nuclear terrorism, because I think that is genuinely an existential risk to the country — maybe not to the nation, but certainly to our democracy. But for normal terrorism, it would be a bad day, but it’s not going to be the end of America. I believe we rewarded the terrorists of 9/11 over and over and over again by the way we distorted ourselves in fear. I don’t know how many of you travel and have visited the new embassies we’re building overseas. It’s so disappointing. These are giant enclaves surrounded by nine-foot-high, fortified walls. They’re often in the suburbs, so they’re isolated from the population. What does that say about America? It says we’re afraid; we’re frightened; we’re a frightened little nation. I mean, this is pathetic. We’re rewarding terrorists all over again by our behavior, and we need to change that. But unfortunately, we have the two parties each trying to look like they’re more for homeland security than the other guy. And that means no dumb idea is too dumb to propose. We’ve got to change that narrative. As long as I’m getting myself in all kinds of trouble today, the third thing I’d try to do is I would try to change our narrative about immigration. I could ask for a show of hands, but I don’t think it’s necessary. How many of you had a grandparent or a great-grandparent that came from another country? It’s everybody. That’s what we are. We are in a good country. It’s the reason why we’ve been such a successful country, because people with energy and hope and a tremendous amount of imagination wanted to come here. Tell me another country in the world that has had this benefit and this privilege. It’s the reason for our huge success, because we became a welcoming nation to people who wanted to improve their own lives. How lucky can we be? And yet what have we been doing? We’ve been sending out signals that say somehow we’re afraid of people who want to come here to work, that we’re afraid of somebody who’s different from us. We’ve got to change that story too. I think we should start the religious service.

Q: What percent of U.S. foreign aid actually goes to foreign countries and their business versus American corporations and contractors?

A: I don’t have the facts. I’m poorly prepared to answer that question. When we first started off giving foreign assistance, we were giving money away to other countries, but they could only buy stuff from us, so it was fairly a self-serving thing. There was a time when Japan foreign assistance was putting up a television tower in a country so people would buy SONY TVs. It’s that kind of a thing, and we used to do that. We’re a lot better than that now. We do spend a lot more of our resources now on organic support. We’ve learned our lesson for that. In the old days, we gave foreign assistance, but it was really kind of a subsidy to ourselves, and we’ve learned from that. By the way, I think that’s one of the most common things I hear, how ominous it is to hear about Chinese development. Well, frankly, they’re doing it wrong just like we used to do it wrong. You see what Chinese development is around Africa. It’s Chinese enclaves bringing their own food and bringing their own cooks. They don’t interact with society at all. So we shouldn’t be afraid of Chinese development in any of these countries. It’s really about them. It’s not about the recipient. We’re better than that, but we’re still not doing what we should be in my view.

Q: What position would the United States need to take that would indicate to the countries or other parts of the world that we are a worthy partner for them to achieve their goals for their people?

A: First thing I would say, I think America has become very tiresome by giving lectures all the time about how inspirational we are. And I think we would do a lot better to stop giving lectures about how wonderful we are and how inspirational we are, and I think the best thing we could do to be an inspirational power again is to clean up our own act. I mean, it’s pretty hard to be an inspiring power when we have to borrow $5 billion a day from the rest of the world to sustain an inflated lifestyle. That is not inspirational. That looks selfish. I do think getting our own house in order is an exceptionally important thing for America’s reputation in the world. That would be the No. 1 thing. Second, we’ve unfortunately allowed so much of our foreign assistance to be subject to political manipulation here at home over things we think are important so we tie strings to things. We’ve made a lot of foreign assistance kind of unpredictable and unreliable. I remember talking with the president of Ghana. He came to my think tank when we had an event that commemorated Ghana receiving the Millenium Challenge Award, and in a small conversation beforehand, he said that, “You Americans give me lectures, and the Chinese give me money.” There’s something to that.  We’re so busy giving people lectures and tying people’s hands. Let’s clean up our own act, provide ways to help them improve their quality of government and then let’s encourage our corporations to work with their corporations to build real and sustainable jobs. I think it’s pretty simple.

Q: Is the influence of industry and business in our government more than in our electorate?

A: I have a very different view of this. Are there corrupt influences in government from business? Yes. There are only three ways that societies make major decisions. One is through prices. You’re going to sell something for a product level, you’re going to buy it, and you let the marketplace decide what to do. So one way is through market pricing. The second is through administrative procedures. You agree in advance what the rules are going to be, and then you establish structures to help resolve differences, and you put them into an administrative structure. There’s only one other way to make major decisions, and that’s politics. Politics is about making decisions where there are no structures in advance that you can turn to to help you make decisions. Politics is an essential and positive dimension of society. The foundation of politics is the clear understanding and balancing of conflicting interests. You cannot insulate yourself from interests and be effective in politics. And yet we’ve approached ethics in a way that somehow we can have anybody that has an interest in something be involved with the government. I think this is crazy. The only people who are going to be allowed to consult the government in the future are the people who don’t know anything about the subject. And that can’t possibly be in our interests as a country. So how do we deal with that? Well, we deal with that in two ways. We deal with it by transparency, you know, declare your interests so that we know what your motives are, so that we know what your interests are. Then we have to create structures where we have competing interests that are at the table at the same time. When politics gets distorted is when people do things secretly, and only one small group is at the table. Now that is bad. We have to fight that. But we don’t fight that with the way we’re currently approaching ethics in government. The way we’re approaching ethics in government is that we can’t let anybody that knows anything work for the government. And that’s going to be to our long-term detriment. We’ve got to fix that problem.

Q: Can the U.S. economy accommodate the return of all the soldiers in the existing unemployment situation we have in our country?

A: First of all, we’re not that big a military anymore. We’ve got 1.4 million people in uniform active duty, about 700,000 in reserves. We’re not going to dramatically change that. We’re going to bring them home. But we’re still going to have a fair number deployed overseas. We’re not going to be able to afford quite the same size military as we currently have with the budget constraint we’re facing. I personally don’t think we ought to make defense the leading part of budget cuts, because I don’t think it can solve the answer. Defense is going to have to be a part of it. I don’t think there’s going to be any question about that. But I don’t think it ought to be the leading part, because in all honesty, we do live in a dangerous world. We ought to be very prudent and very careful on how we use force. There are times when we have to pick up arms to protect people we love and ideas we care for. We have to be prepared to do that. So finding a sensible balance between how big a military we want and how we use it is the question in front of us. If we are going to cut the size of the military, we’re talking about maybe 100,000 personnel, something like that. I don’t know big it’ll ultimately be. But that’s a small fraction, and these are exceptionally talented people. Let me give you one example of that. If you take the best corporations in America with the best talent, on average, 1 percent of their executives will have a master’s degree. You go to the United States military, 7 percent have master’s degrees or (higher degrees). It’s an exceptionally talented group of people. Our NCOs, which are really the backbone our military. It’s the core of our success. These are exceptionally talented people. It used to be rather crude individuals. That’s way in the past. I know master sergeants that have two or three master’s degrees. These are talented people. So they’re going to do well in our society. Sadly, our recession is going to hurt a generation, but it’s the lower quintile generation, a segment of American society. Our military is not in the lower quintile; they’re in the upper quartile.

Q: What is the point of giving foreign aid if we have to work through corrupt governments?

A: I think the question is, do we use our assistance program in a way that over time builds better government? And let me point in that regard to Korea. For reasons of our geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union and with China, South Korea became our ally. It was certainly not a democracy for the first 20 years. It gradually became a vibrant democracy. We were partnered with them, and we systematically helped them work through to see a better structure for their own society and their own government. And it’s been a huge success. It takes a long time. And of course it was successful because it had an overarching problem that we were willing to close our eyes to some failings, but that’s because there was a larger challenge we had to deal with, and we made it a success. I think the great challenge we have now is when we’re involved in a situation where our national interests are somewhat in conflict with our national values. And that certainly was the case when we were involved in Bahrain in the spring. We certainly can’t afford to have the current government of Bahrain unhinged. The power geometry of the Persian Gulf depends on them being solid and in place. But it’s hard to see how they remain solid over time when 65 percent of the street is in protest with their own government. We have a tension here. The problem is that you confront this dynamic, this tension, at a moment of maximum crisis, and that’s of course when you have the least degrees of freedom to solve it. So I think we have to get through the current moment, and we have to try to work with countries who we need them to be successful, and we need them to adopt more progressive policies concerning their own citizens. This is a standard problem we have, I think.

Q: How can the U.S. foster multinational funds and objectives? I’ve got several questions about the European situation and how much we need to intervene in Greece. As much as we’d like to be 50 years old and get a full retirement, can we let them make that decision with multinational support?

A: On the Greece situation in general, I mean, I understand the anger that people feel about the undisciplined nature of the Greek economy over the last 20 years. And that’s painfully now coming home. That has to get sorted out. Frankly, I think we’re very fortunate that Papandreou is currently the prime minister, because I think a socialist prime minister has a much better chance of selling bad medicine, hard medicine, than would a conservative prime minister. I think that’s working out. It’s painful. It’s very difficult. Terrible pictures in the paper this morning, you probably saw. It’s going to be hard, but gradually we’ll get through that. Let me try to address the larger question of multilateral cooperation. This is a hard thing for Americans, because it’s when I meet with Europeans and when they were most angry with us back in 2003, 2004, at some point in the conversation, they all said, “Look, we all share common values.” And I would tell them, “We do except in one very important way.” Everybody in Europe had a chance to leave and decided to stay. Everybody in America had a chance to stay in Europe and decided to leave and come to America. There’s a pretty profound difference when you think about it — really a big difference. It’s the source of the great divide between us American unilateralists and European multilateralists. In this country, the attitude is: If you don’t like your situation, get off your dead butt and do something about it. It’s up to you. We’re not going to do it for you, right? That grows out of the fact that our culture springs out of people that left their home and chose to make a new one. It’s up to you. The Europeans, they decided they wanted to stay, but after 300 years of killing each other, they said, “We’re not going to do that anymore, so we’re going to work this out.” It was a profound impulse toward multilateralism in Europe that we don’t understand. It’s kind of hard for us to figure it out. It’s like, “Get over it. Do it.” Well, it’s not quite like that, so it’s hard for America. This is what I think is one of the great tensions we have, to be the global superpower, but to be honest, we can no longer do it on a unilateral basis. We’re going to have to grow up a bit. We’re going to have to moderate some of our impulses a bit, and we’ll push others to get out there and do some things with us. I think one of the easy and great problems of multilateralism is that there is endless opportunity to look for an excuse not to do something. Multilateralism gives you so many reasons to do that, so we have to strike a balance here.

Q: Two days away: the birth of southern Sudan. What do you believe will be the United States’ role in helping secure the safety, wellbeing and independence of this new country?

A: This is a huge issue; it’s underappreciated. Looks like some modestly good news today. The news over the last two months has been very dark, very troubling. Modestly good news, as I said, in today’s paper. Very few Americans really know about the tragedy of Sudan. This is a country that was involved in a 14-year civil war. If you were to take the civilian losses in Sudan and scale them up to American population standards, it would be the equivalent of losing 15 million Americans. It’s just astounding how awful this has been. We were instrumental in helping to broker a reconciliation process between the North and the South, but then both sides, for different reasons, chose to not move the agenda forward constructively — both sides. And so now we’re on the edge of a radical new political arrangement, and the instinct is to go back to fighting, and of course, that would be a very dark and bad thing. The central dilemma is this: all the oil in Sudan is in the south, but it can’t get to the market unless it goes through the north. Our argument to them has been: You both die together or you both live together I mean, you’re going to have to chose. You know one path and it hasn’t been very good. So you have to find a path where both of you can prosper together. Yeah, you have all the oil in the south, but you can’t get it to market unless you go through the north. You’re going to have to find a way to work together. We have a more active engagement strategy now than we’ve had in the last six years. It’s very last in coming. As I said, I think the news today is somewhat more optimistic, but it could break down easily. The south new government is incredibly immature … It just doesn’t have life experience to be a government, so running a government is very hard for them. Fortunately, several of the Nordic countries are being quite helpful in mentoring them. This could become a bad thing, and again, isn’t central to our interests; it’s really more to our humanitarian impulse that we really try to help here. But you could also say it is in our interests not to let portions of Sudan — and the Trans-Sahel region is increasingly like this; it’s becoming the new Afghanistan — where it becomes the lawless area where radical terrorists elements can operate freely, and that’s not in our interests, so we do want to try to help solve the problem.

Q: Please comment on the role of culture in foreign aid — both by how to decide what we need to provide to a country, and also what limits to place on exporting American cultural norms.

A: This is where I said, rather elliptically, we have a bad habit where we tend to let our domestic politics infect our approach to foreign aid, and we tend to do it in this area more than others. I think we do a reasonably good job of keeping it in check, but I think the efficiency of our expenditures is significantly diminished because of it. I would, again, like to argue we would be a lot better off if we spent the bulk of our foreign assistance on the government helping other governments develop quality institutions. That doesn’t mean we have to embrace our form of democracy, but they need to have some form of representative government, some rule of law. They can decide what are the norms they want to put into their laws, but there needs to be a rule of law. We could do that, and I think we could free ourselves from a lot of the battles that are waged on, kind of, the cultural attributes of foreign assistance, which tends to become an increasing problem, but again, it’s part of our domestic politics; it’s what it takes to get a consensus in Washington in order to get a bill passed, and that’s part of our problem now.

Q: What kind of a moment might we need to assert our global leadership again? We don’t want to have another attack like 9/11. What could we do? What could we create? What’s our possibility of global leadership?

A: Well, I think America still has an enormously popular image in average people’s minds around the world. If you were to get any citizen in another country say, “I can guarantee you a free Visa to the United States if you want one,” the line would be endless. People still see this as a land of personal opportunity. I dread the idea that it would be some security crisis again, because I’m afraid our domestic politics would push us more towards the angry response we had after 9/11 than it would towards a large and generous spirit. I would hope it wouldn’t be that. It’s one of the reasons why I do think we should have a homeland security program, is just to try and moderate our own impulse. If we were to tidy up our own house — it’s not unlike our own personal lives. We all know we need to lose 15 pounds… We all need to get our finances in better shape. We all need to have more modest expectations for what it takes to be a quality life. I mean, who the hell needs 30 suits in the closet? I only wear one at a time. If we were just more measured, I think we would easily restore our own sense of confidence. I think America is best when it is confident, but not overconfident. I think we need to work on that at home. I think we could do that. I’m weary of grand episodes that will create it for us.

Q: This last question actually starts with your question. You came here to talk to thoughtful people; we think we are. How do we make an impact other than “losing that 15 pounds?”

A: Well, let’s be honest. We’ve got the politicians we deserve, because we are not positively engaged in politics the way we should be. We should be demanding more of our politicians. We expect them to be quality people, and yet, we treat them poorly. We get disgusted with what we find; we walk away from it. I’m completely optimistic about America in every dimension except our politics, and so I think that starts with all of us. We have to be more engaged; we have to be more demanding of quality people. Don’t just be disgusted when your representative says something dumb; tell them. This has got to be more of an interactive process, because right now, too much of the politics in Washington is shaped by highly engineered interest groups that have turned Washington into a fishbowl that’s just isolated from America. I think it means ultimately that we have to be far more engaged. You need to tell them if you think they’re doing the wrong thing, and you need to tell them thank you when they’ve done the right thing. I think it would be helpful to all of you if you find people that are like you — sensible, thoughtful people that want a better America and a more positive American role in the world, to let that be criteria that you say you’re going to value your politicians by. This is a long-term recovery effort. But we can do it. That’s what this country is about. We’ve had episodes like this before, and we’ll get through this one too.