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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2000 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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What's right for America versus what works

Behind the Gore-Bush battle lies a bigger conflict: between the law school and the business school -- MOST OF US see the US presidential battle as a race between Al Gore and George W Bush. But the election season has also highlighted another contest, one likely to continue regardless of who is the victor. It is a grander contest, influencing legislation, business and even foreign policy. It is the contest between two political cultures: the culture of the lawyer and the culture of the MBA graduate.

The lawyer culture divides life and politics into three categories: right, wrong and rights. It tends to look for solutions within the world of the law - rather than, say, in the world of economics. The legal tendency, particularly its focus on civil rights, has roots in American history. More than most nations, America defines itself in terms of a legal document, the Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln, who was willing to see brother slay brother in the Civil War to right a moral wrong, was a typical lawyer president. Today, with the proliferation of law school graduates, the legal attitude pervades America as never before. Television, with the popularity of shows such as Law and Order and The Practice, makes this trend visible. Society looks to the law to solve problems it did not formerly perceive in legal terms: healthcare, tobacco use, tyre safety - even when this attitude generates tremendous costs.

But there is also a mighty counter-culture, that of the MBA. This tends to view matters from an economic, or at least a business, point of view. It is also more pragmatic, asking, "What's the bottom line?" The MBA culture, too, has old roots, antedating the postwar creation of the Master's in Business Administration by centuries.

One thinks of Benjamin Franklin, the nation's father inventor. Franklin was deeply religious and a revolutionary. But he also perceived that conflicts and absolutes were often destructive to progress and saw that enormous benefit flowed from commerce. He wrote that "no nation was ever ruined by trade" and "when men are employ'd, they are best content'd."

The MBA culture too is strengthening - and not merely because more Americans are collecting the degree. As more citizens come to own shares, they join the MBA culture. It also has its own television life, as evidenced by the ever-present ticker numbers crossing the bottom of the screen, even on non-business news programmes.

In this season's political theatre, Mr Gore represents the lawyer culture. This is so quite literally. Although he never become a member of the Tennessee bar, Mr Gore did attend Vanderbilt Law School - as well as divinity school, in its own way another form of law school. It is also true in political terms: trial lawyers tend to be strong Gore supporters.

But Mr Gore is also a lawyer, or a judge, by inclination. He casts most issues in terms of right and wrong. This weekend he told citizens to "take your souls to the polls". Hurting the environment, in the Gore vision, is a grand wrong. His foreign policy is interventionist. He sees the national debt as a sin akin to personal bankruptcy. There is none of the neutral businessman's view of debt as merely a corporate budgeting tool.

George W Bush, by contrast, is the classic MBA man who thinks "the role of a leader is to put the people's business ahead of politics". His own Harvard Business School graduate degree reflects this. In contrast Mr Bush's top campaign donors are the business crowd and his vice-presidential choice, Richard Cheney, was a chief executive.

Mr Bush, like Mr Gore, is true to his culture out of personal inclination. Franklin-like, he tends to view the world in terms of what is possible. On foreign affairs, he chooses carefully among battles: he says he would not have supported US intervention in Somalia and Haiti and he strongly supports trade with China.

On domestic issue Mr Bush tends to be flexible, even when it angers his party. On abortion, for example, he rejects the Christian right's absolutism, saying that while he is personally opposed to it, "a lot of minds will have to be changed" before the nation is ready to reverse Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court's codification of legal abortion.

Particularly infuriating to the purists was Mr Bush's low-key response to the question of whether he would meet the caucus representing homosexual Republicans. Instead of "never", his reply was the classic "keep your options open" B-School approach: "Probably not". That pragmatism worries some tax-cutting Republicans. They fear that, if elected, Mr Bush would trade away a tenet of their orthodoxy: marginal rate tax cuts.

He also has the MBA's inclination to take risk for reward. That has led him to tackle the taboo subject of Social Security privatisation. Social Security pensions may be reliable but the scheme's annual return on investment - less than 1 or 2 per cent for most Americans - simply cannot compare with rates the market would offer if they managed their money themselves.

The candidates are not the whole story. Electing Mr Gore does not ensure a "legal" regime, for the Democrats have their own MBA wing that favours school vouchers or some Social Security privatisation. Lawyers can also be negotiators and pragmatists, as in the British model of the phlegmatic solicitor who compromises out of court.

For their part Republicans can be absolutists, both on issues such as opening up trade with China, where there is a vehement anti-trade faction, and on social questions such as abortion. While true to their cultures, both Mr Gore and Mr Bush are also politicians and would strike compromises with an opposing Congress.

The greater question is for the country itself. Is America the Land of Commerce, or is it the Land of Law? Regardless of today's outcome, the tension remains and is likely to grow - if only because America's professional schools annually crank out thousands of new warriors for each army.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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