Oh, quit whining

MACKINAC ISLAND -- Everybody knows a chirpy optimist, one of those sunshiny people always telling you to turn your frown upside down and look on the bright side.

But spend a while listening to Fareed Zakaria, and it's hard not to be swept along by this self-described seeker of the bright side. The writer, editor and CNN host, the first big-name speaker at the Mackinac Public Policy Conference, has a way of backing up his optimism with strings of data points to suggest, with wry humor, that all Americans have to fear is ... fear itself. Also, our bullheaded representatives in Washington and the hand-wringing elderly who clamor for more than their share of the public purse, but more on that in a minute.

He started his talk Tuesday by recounting a few of the end-of-America moments he'd encountered in his career -- the 1987 stock market crash, shrugged off in a matter of weeks. The early-'90s recession, which crushed the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The mid-'90s crises in Mexico and Asia. The bursting of the tech bubble. And so on.

And then he got to the good news: Zero countries with hyperinflation today. Relative political stability has allowed a "plug and play" world economy in which countries that would never have had a seat at the table otherwise are free to pull up their own chairs. An information revolution that has given voice to the previously powerless like no other in history. He recounted that in 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Saudi government was able to keep it a state secret for six days before letting the rest of the world know.

"Ask yourself how long it would last today," he said. The "monopoly on information," once enjoyed by repressive governments around the world is broken.

That's not to say it's all good. One of the most arresting statistics he offered was bleak: Since 1945, recessions have resolved themselves first with GDP rebound, and then job growth following six months later. But in 1990, that started to change. Jobs lagged that recovery by 18 months. After the tech bust, by 39 months. And the current one? The economy, in terms of GDP, is fully recovered. But jobs will take five years to catch up.

"How to handle that is the central problem of the American economy," he said. Easy for a CNN host to say, and he didn't offer any solutions.

But you don't get to be a headline speaker by hanging crepe. He offered a locker-room pep talk of all the U.S. has going for it, if only we can shake off the gloom and start thinking differently, with innovation and creativity, backed up by hard science.

Which led to the sobering portion of the session, when he reminded the audience of how much of America's greatness was born of, and fostered by, the U.S. government.

"The federal government funded massive amounts of research during the Cold War," he said. "Silicon Valley grew on the back of (California's) great universities."

And yet, the government is in danger of becoming, in Washington Post writer Ezra Klein's words, "an insurance company with an army," spending increasing amounts on the elderly and less on the young -- $4 for every person over 65, but only $1 for those under 18.

We shouldn't argue over the size of government, but what kind of government we want, he said, one that "panders to the future," rather than the past. Spending on infrastructure is spending that pays off in growth.

But any infrastructure spending has to be undertaken with at least some revenue growth, and there Zakaria's remarks dovetailed with those of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, who followed his act, along with Congressman Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, and WDET host Craig Fahle. Levin never once spoke the word "tax," but said "revenue growth" is essential, and will not happen as long as Republicans cling to their "line in the sand" over taxes.

The Michigan congressional delegation in Washington meets informally, but recent advances by tea party-backed candidates have poisoned the atmosphere, Levin said.

"There's a very strong tea party element that is dividing the Republicans," he said. "Compromise is a dirty word for many members of Congress."

Fahle asked Clarke to answer in one word whether the New International Trade Crossing, the proposed new Detroit-Windsor bridge, will be built.

"Yes," replied Clarke. "However," and then launched into a lengthy explanation of its complicating factors. Which seemed an appropriate note on which to adjourn to cocktail hour.

The conference continues Wednesday with headline speeches by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and former Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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