Before he became Dr. Seuss, Theodor “Ted” Geisel was a political commentator and editorial writer. Then, realizing that his adult target audience was already beyond help and reformation, he turned to the more thoughtful and impactful world of children’s literature.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that we have found imbedded in the Seussian classic “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” (Random House, NY, 1990) an entire subtext related to our current domestic economic crisis. The story is about a young buck (let’s call him “America”) who has “brains in your head” and “feet in your shoes.” Our eager young hero will “join the high fliers who soar to high heights,” will be “best of the best,” and “top all the rest.”
But then “bang-ups” and “hang-ups” occur (curiously in the shape of a deflated balloon … prescient, eh?). Soon our protagonist is left in a lurch, then falls in a slump. As Chief Economist Seuss noted in his testimony to the House Finance Committee, “Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”
Fittingly, the story then leads the reader “toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place … for people just waiting.” While Seuss described this living purgatory a bit differently than we would today (it was 1990 after all), he revealed a place where people waited and waited then waited some more. Translated to 2010 terms, they waited for a tax to change, a bill to pass, a stimulus to work, a cap on gas. They waited for a bank to fail, a line of credit, a check in the mail, and Congress to get it. (apologies to Seuss purists and any readers who dared read that passage aloud.)
In the Seussian world, our hero finally breaks out of the passive malaise of the waiting place (though the ever-elusive author neglects to reveal how it is done), and re-launches himself into the world, finding bright places where there is “fun to be done” and “there are games to be won.” Many would end the book at that point. In their feel-good version, housing prices would rebound, 401k accounts would be flush, and consumers would spend away (again). Joy, crisis, more joy—the classic (simple) plot-line.
Ah, but not so easy. Seuss proceeds to frighten his unwary readers (and confuse thousands of six year olds), when the hero finds out that sometimes things won’t work, he warns readers that “there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.” Think 1000+ page unread legislation; hockey stick graphs of unemployment, not climate change; newly relevant statistics like debt to GDP. Then Seuss drops the real hammer. He reveals that there will be “Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.” Is he talking to taxpayers or borrowers? Mortgage holders or issuers? Business owners or their employees? Union members or entrepreneurs? Is he speaking to politicians of all stripes and colors and philosophies and what of their financial backers?
At a time when many adults and businesses are stuck in the Waiting Place, when others think that the road to recovery should be painless and without personal sacrifice or personal effort, it’s compelling to project a deeper meaning on Seuss’s story. We’d like to think that he was thinking of our society at this point in history facing these unique challenges, that when he told us toward the end of the story to “never forget to be dexterous and deft” he was reminding us to keep investing in our businesses and those of our friends and neighbors, to stay engaged in our political process, to keep dreaming, thinking and working hard.
We see evidence of this effort in every community with whom we work, from the Mile High City to Central Connecticut, from Chicagoland to the Carolinas, from Georgia to Northern California. It’s really pretty remarkable. So while some are waiting and some are dreaming, we see tremendous evidence of individuals and communities taking bold steps, investing in society with capital, innovation, and sheer effort, people making a tangible difference. That gives us hope and fills us with both pride and humility. Not bad for a kids’ book.