Commentary: Many Americans have lost appetite for competition

SAN DIEGO -- Say what you want about the messenger, Americans had better heed the message. Maybe former Sen. Phil Gramm isn't the best person to make the case that much of America's economic gloom is self-inflicted. He's a Republican and, as far ...

SAN DIEGO -- Say what you want about the messenger, Americans had better heed the message.

Maybe former Sen. Phil Gramm isn't the best person to make the case that much of America's economic gloom is self-inflicted. He's a Republican and, as far as many people are concerned, the GOP cares only about the rich. Since leaving the Senate, Gramm has served as vice chairman of the Swiss investment bank UBS. Also, Gramm doesn't exactly exude sympathy for the have-nots, coming across as the antithesis of the "compassionate conservative."

Yet the former economics professor shared with Americans an important lesson. He was right that, despite what it feels like, the economy is not in a recession because there haven't been two consecutive quarters of negative growth. He was right that the problem could be our response to adversity and our collective state of mind -- what Gramm called a "mental recession." Most of all, he was right that we've become "a nation of whiners" who find it easier to complain about our problems than to turn off the television, get off the couch and do something about them.

"You just hear this constant whining," Gramm told The Washington Times, "complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline."

It's true. Americans do complain a lot, and many of them have lost the appetite for competition -- with immigrants, foreign countries, each other. Even in tough times, when you would think that Americans would be willing to work harder and compete for what they want, the entitlement mentality is alive and well.


While the presidential candidates are telling voters what they want to hear, Gramm told them what they needed to hear.

This created a nuisance for his friend John McCain, whose presidential campaign Gramm had been advising until the "whiner" flap. It's worth noting that McCain seems to have more appreciation for straight talk when he is the one dishing it out. The presumptive GOP nominee can't afford for voters fretting over sinking mortgages and rising gas prices and lost jobs to think his campaign surrogates are insensitive to their concerns.

In his own Rev. Jeremiah Wright moment, McCain quickly cut his old friend loose and insisted that Gramm doesn't speak for him.

Yet, when the subject is American competitiveness, I suspect McCain agrees with Gramm more than he feels comfortable admitting at the moment. During his speech Monday to the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, McCain talked about how we can't hide from the international market.

"To get our economy on track again," he said, "and create new and better jobs, we need to compete more, not less, in the global economy. We can't build walls to foreign competition, and we shouldn't want to."

That is refreshing, especially after a Democratic primary in which both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton turned themselves inside out pandering to blue-collar voters with populist appeals that sounded like what McCain has termed "economic isolationism." This included threats to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and a reluctance to enter into future trade deals without environmental and worker protections.

The way McCain sees it, "any confident, competent country and its government should embrace competition ... not hide from our competitors and cheat our consumers and workers."

And even though Obama quickly criticized Gramm's remarks as evidence that McCain -- and anyone associated with him -- was out of touch with the economic reality faced by average Americans, the Illinois senator seems in touch with what McCain is saying. At least, he has since he locked up the Democratic nomination.


In June, in a speech in Flint, Mich., Obama noted that "Michigan's children will grow up facing competition not just from California or South Carolina, but also from Beijing and Bangalore."

The presumptive Democratic nominee even took a shot at the same protectionists he had spent months courting.

"There are some who believe that we must try to turn back the clock on this new world," Obama said, "that the only chance to maintain our living standards is to build a fortress around America, to stop trading with other countries, to shut down immigration, rely on old industries. I disagree. Not only is it impossible to turn back the tide of globalization, but efforts to do so can actually make us worse off."

Don't be fooled by the silliness of the presidential campaign. Not only was what Phil Gramm said about how many Americans resist competition not controversial. It wasn't even original.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is .

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