Themes of adulthood, inclusiveness set tone for remaking America


In his inaugural address as 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama said: “We remain a young nation but, in the words of the Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

The words he quoted are from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The whole passage he cites from runs thus: “When I was a child, I used to talk like a child and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, it is time to set aside childish things.”

Obama was referring to America’s need to reaffirm its fundamental values of equality and freedom. But he could just as easily have been talking about his own need to step out of campaigning mode and take on the mantle of the presidency with gravity and workmanship. If indeed he had himself in mind as he spoke those words, it was wise of him.

A lot of people complained that while the Obama speech was a good one, it was not the great oratory they had expected. To respond to those sentiments would have been to succumb to the childishness that now needs to be discarded.

When he was a campaigner, he talked like a campaigner, saw things as a campaigner and thought like a campaigner; but now that he’s become president, it is time for him to set aside that language.

The other passage that resonated in the speech was the one on inclusiveness, which said: “. . . a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product but on the reach of our prosperity . . .”

This understanding of economic dynamics is totally sound. It is a very practical awareness of how economies function. Just as an ecosystem in which only the strongest are allowed to survive is not sustainable, an economy in which only the rich are allowed to get richer cannot really work.

Imagine a world in which there is only one rich man left standing. Of what good to him is all his accumulated wealth if he has nothing to spend it on? How can he hope to survive when there is nobody else there for him to sell his goods to, or to provide him with the things he cannot himself produce?

As Obama also points out correctly, prosperity should be wide-reaching, “not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

To be sure, it ought to be a matter of principle that the poor be provided for and measures be put in place to ensure people are not left behind, irrespective of the economic merits of the case.

But it is equally true that there actually is a case to be made for prosperity being all-inclusive rather than confined to a privileged few.

An inclusive economy is so much more dynamic than a narrowly based one. The narrower the base, the more distorted the pattern of economic growth becomes. An economy that is dependent on the bubbly riches of the few will invariably experience the destruction of those bubbles and produce many casualties in the process.

Chapter 13 of St. Paul’s Letter, from which the earlier quote was taken, is also known as his Hymn to Love. It ends as follows: “As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love . . . and the greatest of them is love.”

Hopefully the Obama presidency will embrace this message as well as the call to discard childish ways.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.