Throwing away excellence

Published 11:54 am Saturday, June 27, 2009

I remember when the TV repair man used to come to our house. Dad would answer the door, greet him by name and escort him to the family room where the wooden-encased television sat. Wire clippers and screw drivers in hand, the repair man would spend what felt like hours to a young boy surgically adjusting the back of our old black and white set. And, when the repair man finally finished, Dad would let me pull out the knob that turned the TV on and rotate the dial through the three network channels hoping to find a western.

In my parent’s generation, if you built or acquired something, there was an expectation that it would last. Furniture not only lasted the life of many families, but was passed on to children who sometimes refinished it to look better than it did originally. When you finished a gallon of milk, you did not simply throw the container in the trash can. You placed it on the porch where the milk delivery man would retrieve it so that it could be sanitized and reused. And, when something broke — like the family television set — you called the repair man to come and fix it.

While we have many good products today, there is often a mindset to create things easier and cheaper, and when they break, or when we tire of them, to simply discard them and get something else that is easy and cheap to acquire.

In today’s “throw away” world, it is tempting to conclude that if the products we use can be acquired easily and cheaply and merely discarded when we tire of them, that the same might be true of the core American tenets of hard work and personal responsibility. But while tempting to yield to this thought, the reality is that these principles are what made our nation great; they are what set us apart from the rest and made us exceptional. Americans are the world’s innovators, thinkers, problem-solvers. Yet, across America, we seem to be suffering from mediocrity.

In accepting mediocrity, Americans have become prone to turning to the ultimate standard-bearer of mediocrity to solve problems for them: the federal government. Unfortunately, to compound the problem is an unreasoned confidence that Washington can solve all of our problems — a confidence that many rightly point out began far sooner than the current administration.

However, the returns we hope to yield from the federal government quickly become expectations which quickly become entitlements. And once they become entitlements, there is no longer choice, and no longer control. And we are left striking a large check to the federal government for mediocre benefits we may or may not want or use. We see this in examples all across our government.

The federal government is playing an increasingly influential role in the nation’s public elementary and secondary education system. Yet, across America one in four students drop out of high school. The remaining students lag behind those in high-achieving countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and Japan in math and science.

In only eight years the Medicare fund that pays hospital bills for older Americans is expected to run out of money. Yet, the drive to solve the legitimate problem of uninsured Americans is leading us down a path to put more control in the hands of government which, at the moment, is ill-suited and short on ideas to even address the current Medicare insolvency crisis.

An MIT study found that the new energy tax being proposed in Congress would cost families an additional $3,900 per year — more than double what most families’ pay for all clothes and shoes, or their current electricity and natural gas bill. Yet, America is quickly on a path to settling for energy taxes rather than creating incentives for innovation and solving the problem of our dependency on foreign oil.

Back in the 1960s when GM was selling Chevelles, Camaros, Cutlasses and Catalinas en masse the conventional wisdom was, “As GM goes, so goes the nation.” Today — $50 billion in bailouts later — GM’s bankruptcy will leave the once-hailed economic generator owned 70 percent by the federal government and 20 percent by the United Auto Workers.

As Americans we should never become satisfied with mediocrity, because the moment we do, it spreads roots that choke out any seeds of success. And, as Americans we should never apologize for success, because every time we succeed we strengthen the foundation upon which freedom and democracy stands for all the world. In the face of adversity and challenge, let’s not throw away excellence for mediocrity because it seems easier or safer. American excellence is something worth preserving and protecting — and like family heirloom furniture — we can build its value by polishing and improving upon it for generations to come.