Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Americas on First. Whats on Second.

Abbot and Costello made a very funny skit about baseball – the most famous lines were: who's on first; what's on second; I dunno is on third. It is one of the funniest bits ever. Try it at youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTcRRaXV-fg

The point of that bit is that language can be confusing. Abbott and Costello talk past each other in a very revealing way. It reminds me of what we have today with the phrase "America First". In the destructive political environment we live in today, even such innocuous words can cause extreme, emotional, even violent reactions from the poles of the political spectrum. So I thought I would have a little fun with that today.

In grade school, I was usually first in line for recess and lunch. Being first was not anything to envy. America is not first in a lot of things and for good reason. I doubt we could ever place first in a rugby or a badminton match. And of course, China and India have us beat on population, and we are even pretty far down the list when it comes to income per person. You can’t be first at everything.

Which brings up lots of things America is good at. We are best in the world at American football. No one makes bourbon or JD like Americans. It’s not easy to beat America at swimming or average wealth per person. Then there is Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds.

So what is the big deal when it comes to America First? President Trump says he wants to make America great again and he wants to do it by putting America first. That sounds pretty intuitive but maybe not. Think about most relationships. Percy Sledge’s second verse in his song When a Man Loves a Woman goes like this:

When a man loves a woman
Spend his very last dime
Trying to hold on to what he needs
He'd give up all his comforts
And sleep out in the rain
If she said that's the way
It ought to be

Sleeping out in the rain is not my idea of a good time but Percy had it right – the best way to have a great relationship is to put your friend in first place. There is no competition here. A rising tide lifts all boats. Not putting yourself in first place is sometimes the best way to be tied for first place.

Got you humming the song, right? What a great song. Anyway, the point is that this works for America too. I am trying to not imagine a ménage à trois with President Trump, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel but it is true that the US has great relationships with many countries. Thumbing your nose at them or somehow threatening them is not always the best way to do what’s good for the USA. Again, America First might mean America selfishly making nice with our friends abroad. (Notice I said with our friends.)

So is there any sense in which America First is a positive slogan? I think so. When you won the spelling bee in fifth grade you were proud of yourself. When you played on the state championship athletic team you were equally proud. When the US Olympic team came in first you might have raised your fist into the air with pride. Moving to first chair in the orchestra made your parents beam with pride. Being first can be the sign of things that are very good for us.

You practiced every day. You set goals and tried to achieve them. You learned the value daily of learning from your mistakes. A competition can sometimes make you even better than you were. This learning doesn’t just make you the kid that got the trophy. It turned you into a person who takes great pride in solving problems, learning new things, and being a great example for people around you.

Trying to make America first in terms of job opportunities, corporate competitiveness, and governance is valuable. It is not so much that we come in first. What matters is that we try to come in first. Being first isn’t great for everything. Being first despite everyone else is clearly not often the best path. Being first to make yourself better, however, is hard to argue with.

But what about America first with the underscore on America? We have 300+ million here some of whom were not born in America. My mother came to the USA in 1929. Apparently, her father was not good at picking years. But they came from Budapest and made the USA their home. My mother became a citizen and I never once heard her say Hungary first. She taught me about Hungarian culture and she made stuffed cabbage Hungarian style that was to die for. But like many of us, she rooted for America. Her husband (my father) fought in World War II and like most people in America he wanted America to win the war.

Does that mean that we all have to approve of everything done by the American government or its people? Of course not. This is a free country and we have the rights to disagree, to speak out, to protest, and so on. But the question of America First in this context is how you come down on the great majority of things. If it turns out that you resist everything done by Americans, then I would question why you even want to live here. America First means to me that you have taken America to be your home and that when it comes to the full system, warts and all, America comes first and the rest of those places are at least a step behind.


  1. Dear LSD. Folks who don’t like the USA will construe ‘merica First negatively and imbue the slogan with unflattering characterizations unintended by its author. Others, who like ‘merica but not the author will also join the cacophony bandwagon. Those distractors will not accept the author’s contention that ‘merica First does not mean ‘merica only and that any country can/should also pursue its self-interest—warts ‘n all. I recently heard that in each 2015 and 2016 about 5,000 ‘mericans relinquished their citizenship for other countries due to DJT, allegedly. Cynically, I hope those 10,000 were from the Leftist coasts and receiving food stamps, welfare, unemployment, Medicaid, UIC, etc. If the trend continues until 2020 that’ll be a total of 20,000 and if DJT has a second term a total of 40,000 bye-bye. Good riddance. And as Bud said to Lou, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.”

  2. At the expense of introducing some far-out terminology, let me suggest that "America First" needs to be understood in the accounting terms : "Gross" and "Net". "Gross First" is being first all the time and in all circumstances without regard to the consequences beyond self (America)."Net First" is also being first, subject to a range of puts and takes ( debits and credits) that take into account desirable accommodations to preserve or enhance the common good. "Net First" promotes the notion of including relative values into the equation that still results in being first. But it is a "first" conditioned on the terms of the culture and lifestyle we as a country wish to embrace.