The Obama Badge of Honor: Snubbing the Free Market

Right Commentary, October 20, 2008 

Senator Barack Obama would like the country to believe that snubbing the private sector adds to his qualifications to be President of the United States. For the past eighteen months, he has touted that he turned down Wall Street after college for community organizing and walked away from lucrative big law firm jobs after law school for civil rights lawyering. In the Obama campaign narrative, the candidate’s rejection of corporate America is a badge of honor, a manifestation of what Obama’s wife refers to as his commitment to closing the gap between “the world as it should be” and “the world as it is.” 

Self-congratulation and self-adulation are not the same as reality. Each day, clients of large law firms and Wall Street, not just political activists, take concrete actions that make the world a better place. Senator Obama does not understand, so he refuses to acknowledge the possibility.

Who are these clients that Obama could have served as a corporate lawyer or a Wall Street banker? They include: energy companies that produce solar power; steelmakers that manufacture products used in automobiles, highways and trains; food companies that deliver meat to supermarkets; technology giants that invent computer hardware, software and information systems used by ordinary individuals from Seattle to Mumbai; and private equity firms that invest in and improve such companies. There are numerous other examples. For a profit, companies of all stripes serve the U.S. and global economies, and are served by large law firms and Wall Street entities.

But big law firms and Wall Street were not good enough for Senator Obama. He likes to remind voters that he opted for much more meager earnings as a community organizer and a civil rights lawyer. He forgets, however, that in a market economy, salary often reflects the work performed and the sacrifices exacted.  Instead of writing memoirs about themselves, law firm and Wall Street types write memos, conduct analysis and devise strategies for their clients. Their higher salaries reflect everything ranging from all nighters pulled, vacations cancelled, personal lives postponed—prices paid far less frequently by community activists or nonprofit idealists.

This does not mean that community activists and nonprofit idealists do not serve the public good.  Nor, as the turmoil in today’s financial markets reminds us, does it mean that profit driven adventures are anything close to perfect. But rejecting the private sector for low-paying jobs is not a stand-alone virtue. It is not even an indication of success.

Obama and many of his leftwing supporters, however, prefer to believe that making a difference must come from community service, political activism, pro bono legal services or activities that generate little or no income. Not surprisingly, the presidential hopeful advocates policies and viewpoints that reflect his bias against private enterprise, such as soaking the rich (e.g., increasing taxes on those making $250,000 per year); slapping a windfall tax on big oil companies (whose shareholders consist of pension plans and ordinary Americans); or blaming the current financial crisis on deregulation promulgated by Republicans (when a major piece of deregulation legislation affecting the banking industry, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, passed the Senate on a 90-8 vote and was signed into law by a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, in 1999).

Elsewhere in the world, even some Communist countries seem to have more faith in the private sector than Senator Obama.  China and Vietnam, for instance, have in recent decades rapidly moved away from their command economies in favor of the imagination and entrepreneurship of their respective private sectors. China’s annual economic growth has averaged 10 percent for much of the past 30 years while Vietnam’s has averaged 7.5 percent for much of the past decade. Along the way, these countries have alleviated much poverty, brought about impressive modernization and drastically altered ordinary lives.

Mr. Obama, the self-proclaimed citizen of the world, draws no inspiration from the transformation of other parts of the world or from the realities of his own country. He prefers to remain the hero who rebuffed corporate villains to do the American people’s work. This is a great narrative, but only for those predisposed to seeing the world as worse than it is.

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