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I had just spent the good part of a week attending a business conference in Miami when I settled into my seat on board the plane heading back to Detroit and the man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. "You from Detroit?" he asked. "Born and raised…what about you?" I asked. "No, I am off to Minnesota, where I call home. What business you in?" the man asked. As I began to explain what I did for a living I could hear Pandora's Box creaking open. "Ah, so you must have been one of those who supported the bailout of those bums in Detroit," he said with a smug look on his face. "You mean the loans?" I asked. Needless to say, for the next two hours our conversation became heated at times but ended with a surprising reality.
As my seat mate questioned me about the rationality of "loaning" automakers money while other industries suffer, I waited. "Why not give money to the paper companies?" he asked. That's when I replied: "Because if we would have given money to the paper companies and not the auto companies, who would have bought the stock needed to print the car owner's manuals, not to mention the paper needed for the marketing brochures, or the paper that the magazine would buy for the car companies to advertise on?" I asked.
"Hmm, you got me there," the man said. I then went on to explain to him the reason it was imperative for the government to commit to saving the auto industry was because of its ripple effect. Which industry is among the largest purchasers of semiconductors, expected to account for $5-billion in annually by 2013? Which industry buys tremendous quantities of steel, glass, copper, and other commodities? By the time I had explained to him why it was important for America to have a thriving auto industry, he had given in: "You know, I am pretty much to the right of the right wing tip of this plane, but you have convinced me it was something we needed to do," he said.
"We," it was the single word that had been missing from our entire conversation and it's a word most of us in this country seem to be missing from our vocabulary every day. No matter whether it's the debate on the economy, healthcare reform, the budget deficit, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our debate seems to be about dividing one another, not joining together. The last time I checked, our Constitution didn't start with the words "us" or "them," it begins with the word "we." "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…" What ever happened to "we"?
If this recent economic turmoil has taught us anything, it's that Americans need to rediscover our collective roots. Instead of trying to better our neighbor, shouldn't we all be trying to better our community? Instead of us arguing that the bankers are more worthy of saving than the auto industry or the paper industry, shouldn't we be working to help everyone? I vividly remember that after 9/11, President Bush sent members of his cabinet to Detroit to meet with the heads of the Big Three to devise a plan to help stave the economy from potential disaster. All three—fierce competitors—put their differences aside and vowed to help our nation survive. They helped the country. Where's that sense of collectiveness now?