Steve Forbes is Bullish on the Future
“Pursue your purpose.” “Provide value.” “Have faith in the future,” advises Steve Forbes. The current leader of the Forbes’ empire was slated to appear at the Tulsa Performing Center last spring as featured guest of Tulsa Town Hall. The event had to be cancelled due to the COVID crisis, but Town Hall hosted a virtual presentation with Forbes speaking with author and film producer Jim Stovall on June 26. A link to the presentation is available at tulsatownhall.com through July 22.
I spoke with Forbes to hear his take on a number of issues, including entrepreneurship, education, and what he values most during this era of COVID and financial uncertainty.
The third generation of Forbes to helm the family’s expansive business, he is a 1970 history graduate from Princeton University and was the founding editor of the college’s magazine “Business Today.” In 1985, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the Board for International Broadcasting, overseeing Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. President George H.W. Bush reappointed him in 1993.
Forbes made bids for the Republican presidential candidacy in 1996 and 2000, with a platform promoting a flat tax. Calling the current U.S. tax code an “idiotic monstrosity,” he explained, “It’s a source of corruption. Nobody understands it. It brings out the worst in us.” He currently hosts the podcast “What’s Ahead?,” and is the bestselling author of several books. His recent PBS documentary, “In Money We Trust?,” is based loosely on a book he wrote with Elizabeth Ames.
Forbes and his wife of nearly 50 years, Sabina Beekman, are parents to five daughters.
Nancy Hermann: Central to this election year is ‘what should be government’s main function in our economy.’ What is your view?
Steve Forbes: The main function, in addition to defending the realm, as they used to say — providing safety, internally and externally — is creating an environment for economic opportunity, for growth, for people to enjoy a higher standard of living. As more resources are created, that enables us to create more safety nets and have a better economy, better opportunity and a better environment. Wealth makes that possible. The government should see as its task removing obstacles from people doing new things, expanding existing businesses, creating new businesses and ensuring people are taken care of who need the help.
NH: More broadly, what is America’s role in the world?
SF: America’s role in the world, given that we are the largest economy in the world, still the most powerful military, is to ensure that the bad guys — the bad actors in the world — don’t gain the upper-hand. This happened in the 1930s. We contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War and, today, we have to make sure terrorism is contained and that potentially aggressive countries like Russia and China don’t feel they have free reign to trample their neighbors. So, it’s making sure it’s a peaceful world.
NH: You ran for president twice and now prefer the role of “agitator” instead of candidate. What did you take away from your years on the campaign trail?
SF: Other than the fact that it’s more fun to win than to lose, the bigger lesson was how strong the United States is. Despite many of the stupid things you see out there, it is still fundamentally a very strong country and also a very diverse country, not in the politically correct sense, but in the sense that numerous people have numerous and various interests. Various focuses. You see it all the time going from community to community. And because most people share a basic view of the United States, this diversity of interests, backgrounds, is not a threat to the country, but a source of pride.
NH: From your study of history, is there a lesson that has brought you clarity or inspiration?
SF: What is inspiring and certainly clarifying is that it seems every 40 or 50 years, this country has an election where we debate where this country is going to go. What should the soul of the country be? You saw it in the 1850s before the Civil War. You saw it in 1890s, when there were huge debates about the rise of big cities, massive immigration, huge companies. They called them ‘trusts’ in those days. They seemed to be corrupting and undermining American democracy. We came through it. People were worried about the closing of the frontier. Well, it turns out that the real frontier is the human mind — not land out West. You saw it in the ’30s and the Depression. You saw a little of it in the ’70s. That is why this is probably one of the most pivotal elections since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won.
NH: Speaking of frontiers of the West, and the mind, I know that Walt Disney is someone you admire. What qualities were key to his success?
SF: What is remarkable about Disney and other creators and innovators like him is the very fact that they had an imagination for seeing things that others did not see. Whether it was cartoons with sound, or animated films of feature length, which Disney did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the late ’30s. The movie was a huge hit and saved the company, but he bet everything on it. He had a vision of what a park should be and again nearly severely jeopardized the company’s finances, but pulled it off. That kind of courage and vision is something that ultimately benefits all of us. There’s a new book out called “Disney’s Land” by Richard Snow that describes the creation of Disneyland. Almost every ride was created from scratch. An amazing achievement.
NH: In which fields might entrepreneurs find success now and in the foreseeable future?
SF: The amazing thing is, even in traditional fields you can find opportunities in terms of doing things differently. There are going to be enormous changes in aerospace with high-tech and, of course, enormous areas of opportunity in healthcare. It is 18 to 20 percent of the U.S. economy. You are going to see changes where the patient actually becomes more in control, where patients make choices, not third parties, insurers and the like. You are going to see better safety nets, just as we do with food. So, for people with an entrepreneurial bent, the creation of new devices, new cures and new ways of delivering healthcare are enormous. That’s a multi-trillion-dollar area and it’s just going to be wide open for positive disruption.
NH: Some colleges are jettisoning humanities studies in favor of those more career focused. Is that wise or necessary?
SF: The sticker price of Higher Ed is just outrageous. Instead of being an opportunity for young people to have upward mobility, they end up with a lot of debt — a mini-mortgage they have to spend years trying to get out from under. That is unnecessary and wrong. I think what you are going to see is that universities and educators are going to have to make the case for college on the basis that, yes, we can be more career-oriented, but also that humanities help enrich your life. One who understood that was Steve Jobs. He made the case that science and humanities were not polar opposites. He saw them as two sides of the same coin.
NH: America stumbles sometimes. Fails even. In spite of that, we seem to overcome setbacks and upheaval. What is our secret?
SF: As you point out, we’re humans. We will make mistakes, but being a free country, we also have the capacity and flexibility to overcome setbacks. There is not the kind of rigidity that you find in other countries which have legacies of feudalism, or hierarchies. We are much more flexible. If something looks like it will work, we will try it. In the ’30s we floundered and came roaring back. In the ’70s we were floundering, malaise and all that, and came roaring back. So, create the right environment and we will do it again.
NH: Your father collected Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Fabergé eggs, among other acquisitions. Are you a collector?
SF: I do like collecting. I’m still too young for motorcycles, but I like things like items of Winston Churchill and John Galsworthy, a British novelist — you know The Forsyte Saga. I still like putting stuff together in those areas.
NH: At this point in your life, what do you treasure most?
SF: Good health and a healthy family. Healthy friends, too.