HETRICK: The fools who tarnish our shining city on the hill

August 6, 2011

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Matthew 5:14

En route from England to America in 1630, Puritan minister John Winthrop laid out a vision for his fellow colonists: “We must always consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill,” he said. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”

President-elect John F. Kennedy picked up the mantra in 1961, sharing Winthrop’s story and saying, “Today, the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”

And from his nomination to his final day in office, President Ronald Reagan carried the torch.

“I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life,” Reagan said in his 1989 farewell address. “But I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Two decades after Reagan, I watched the debt-ceiling debate, with all its bickering and backstabbing.

There were no “rocks stronger than oceans,” just sand swirling in a riptide.

There were no “people of every kind living in harmony and peace,” just partisans teeming with anger and self-interest.

As for doors “open to anyone with the will and heart to get here,” well, no.

In 2011, if there are congressional leaders “aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities,” leaders who care that “the eyes of all people are truly upon us,” they’re not showing it. Our dysfunctional government smacks more of Paul McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill” than the Book of Matthew:

Well on the way, head in a cloud,

The man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud,

But nobody ever hears him,

Or the sound he appears to make,

And he never seems to notice.

But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down

And the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.

When our representatives were running for office last year, they told us the big issue was jobs. House Speaker John Boehner likes to ask President Barack Obama, “Where are the jobs?”

Well, I’d like to ask Boehner a question: Where is the promised job-creating legislation?

Sure, some say extending the Bush tax cuts, reducing the federal deficit, capping the debt ceiling, limiting regulations, weakening labor unions, rolling back health-insurance reform and slashing the federal payroll will help create jobs.

Some believe small-business owners like me will reap big savings from such measures and use the money to grow our companies.

But it’s not working. And if past is prologue, it rarely does.

As Will Rogers said during the Great Depression: “The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands.”

In 1980, then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush called it “voodoo economics.”

Yet his son, President George W. Bush, put the practice into play with two tax cuts and a trickle-down promise. Our current leaders extended those tax cuts.

Net impact: A 2011 Washington Post analysis says the Bush tax cuts have, so far, added $1.3 trillion to the national debt. Yet the resulting trickle didn’t translate into jobs. On the contrary, a 2009 Wall Street Journal analysis said the George W. Bush presidency delivered “the worst track record for job creation since the government began keeping records.”

During the Bush presidency, and despite the alleged tax-cut windfall, I had to stop creating jobs and start eliminating them. I found myself swimming in excess office space. I struggled to sustain the compensation and benefits my employees expected and deserved.

And with today’s dysfunctional government, it’s only gotten worse for my small business and others.

The dirty word, you see, isn’t taxes or government. It’s uncertainty—uncertainty born of chaos, gridlock and a focus not on, “We have your back, Ms. Business Owner,” but on, “Let’s stab the other party in the back so they won’t get re-elected.”

If you want to create jobs, dump the fools-on-the-hill routine. Be worthy of the Shining City. The eyes of all people are, after all, upon us.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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