To kick off the New Year in a new way, I need your input on a new initiative.
In coming weeks, I’ll be telling you about some new writing, teaching, and business activities. But all of these relate to my central concern that, in the years ahead, we need to think very differently about notions of common good, “public goods,” and governance. That’s where you come in.
A year or so ago, I pulled together a group from diverse backgrounds – government, politics, finance, non-profit, social venture, and technology – to brainstorm about these issues: With technology changing the ways we interact and make choices together as a community, a society, or even a planet, how can we define a new politics of common good beyond government? How do each of us pursue our commitment to this “greater good” – something bigger than our individual selves – in an increasingly atomized world?
What started as a small discussion group grew to over 100 on-going participants. And what interested them most was bringing even more people into this discussion – which produced the idea of a larger conference. That conference, the “Greater Good Gathering,” was held this fall.
Now, we need you.
The conference featured Martin Luther King III’s keynote address on “Doing Good in the 21st Century,” an opening panel led by former Delaware Governor Jack Markell on improving government today, experts on the future of democracy, and an exploration of how public and private sector innovation might solve the health care problem.
The heart of the conference was three panels thinking creatively across traditional categories of public, private and “social” enterprise:
One consisted of entrepreneurs behind for-profit (yes, for-profit) ventures to insure low-income families, to help families obtain public benefits, to help prisoners maintain family and community relationships, and to monitor the status of seniors living independently.
Another featured experts on how market forces are being tapped to increase social investment, shift “policy risk” from taxpayers to private investors, and induce large corporations to respond to issues like worker rights.
But perhaps the most enthusiastic group was the college students who had started self-sustaining enterprises to solve social problems:
– One student produces prosthetics for those in her native Viet Nam who have lost limbs from traffic accidents or landmines, at a fraction of market cost.
– Others started a business to speed the processing of rape kits.
– Another markets technology to help his fellow dyslexics with their reading.
– One uses food waste to produce insects that replace fish as chicken feed (reducing overfishing).
– Still another builds client relationship management software for homelessness service agencies.
These young people are truly inspiring – but, in the timeworn manner of entrepreneurs everywhere, they hadn’t set out to change the world, or to make a buck: They simply saw a problem and, instead of just asking why, asked “why not?” At one point, when I questioned the director of a social venture fund about what she thought the field would look like in a decade, her answer was that there would be no distinction between social enterprise and “normal” businesses: All businesses will be “social ventures” – promoting the greater good even while making a profit.
Organizing the conference, I was struck by how many people – venture capitalists, former White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, non-profit leaders and intellectual innovators – asked me to keep them “plugged in” in a way that implied that this wasn’t just a conference, or a one-time event: Something about this notion of pursuing the “greater good” really struck a chord. People are looking for new paths for making a difference, seeking the social relevance many used to look for in government … somewhere other than government.
People have suggested to me various forms this Greater Good Initiative could take:
– A think tank – or “institute” – to address these issues (my original intention).
– Smaller conferences, more frequently, in a variety of locations.
– “Franchising” the Greater Good concept to anyone, anywhere who wants to stage similar, local conversations – like TEDx – or building local organizations for people to meet and plan, like MeetUp groups.
– Building a virtual national community and ongoing conversation online.
– A political movement.
– A foundation.
– A venture fund to support young (or even not-so-young) entrepreneurs in developing sustainable solutions to societal challenges.
– Maybe all these things.
– Maybe something else entirely.
What’s the best answer? I don’t know. But I’d like your help in figuring it out: What I do know is that we won’t advance the greater good if we don’t advance it together. Please visit my blog, or email me, so you can share your ideas – and get “plugged in” as we move forward.
Quick Links – Conference Videos:
I wrote a few days ago that I’ve had an unusually fecund several weeks, churning out nine articles for four publications (plus the comments Tom Edsall quoted extensively in the New York Times), expanding my writing “footprint” to additional platforms to address increasing concerns about the direction we’re headed. I’d like to share with you what I’ve been writing lately – starting with my return this week to The Atlantic.
“It’s the Grandparents Stealing From the Grandchildren” – a title drawn from a conversation I actually once had with Kurt Vonnegut – addresses an issue I’ve been writing about since my “master’s thesis” at the Kennedy School: entitlements spending. The piece has harsh things to say about both parties’ approach – although it finds the Republicans most disingenuous (the piece reached #1 on The Atlantic within a few hours of its posting):
Speaker Paul Ryan announced that “we’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” even as he began negotiations with his Senate counterparts over exactly how much they’re gleefully going to increase the very same debt and deficit….
Which begs the question, why would we “reform” entitlements in a way that delays the changes until the problem they are supposedly intended to address will be largely history, imposing draconian cuts on the future? This amounts, purely and simply, to forcing our grandchildren both to pay for our profligacy today and our parsimoniousness tomorrow — or, if you prefer, our liberality toward ourselves and conservatism toward everyone else.
The other pieces published so far also have provoked strong disagreement across the political spectrum – which I hope means they’re making more of a contribution than usual.
For starters, in Why Donald Trump is the most successful president in nearly a century, I argued that, while “Trump is widely viewed as dangerously inept, disengaged, uninformed, uninterested in governing, devoid of meaningful policy objectives, and possibly unstable,” nonetheless “in a short period of time he has implemented more of his agenda, and more thoroughly remade American government and the country as a whole, than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.” To see my whole catalogue of reasons for this assertion, please read the article; yet, as I conclude, “None of this may be good. But it’s time to stop denying his success.”
Almost as if on cue, Trump and the Republicans achieved their greatest “success” to date in all-but-final enactment of their dream “tax cut” legislation. Test the Trickle Down Theory ridicules the economics behind the bill by asking whether any of its intended beneficiaries would be willing to take their cuts in IOU form: “If the GOP ‘supply-side’ theory is correct, those bonds ought to pay off bigly. If not, then they’ll be about as valuable as, say, a diploma from Trump University – but they also won’t then blow an additional $1.5 trillion hole in the national debt.”
A Hard Exit for the Rich puts aversion to taxes into the larger context of a radically changing world: “In coming years, technologies built on the internet, like the platform model and block chain (the technology underlying Bitcoin), will make it easier and easier for everyone – even the little people – to ‘secede and form a globally mobile republic, able to choose which jurisdiction they wish to operate under.’” And War on the Blue States is about more than what’s wrong with the tax bill. It’s about the widening gulf in America and, in particular, what I don’t think liberals heeded in 2016 and still aren’t heeding today:
Both sides of this increasingly-polarized divide see the other as trying to extirpate their way of life – and not inaccurately. Blue America spent the last eight years dictating both economic and cultural changes invalidating virtually every aspect of Red America. Liberals see all that as both righteous and benevolent – we’re both promoting better values and willing to help train them to be more like us. Yes, and that’s what the imperialists always say. Hence the Trump voters’ uprising. And now they’re getting back by imposing their values and destroying the arrogant elite’s culture and economy.
What that means for our politics – how liberalism needs to be modernized for a new era – is the theme of the first piece I wrote in November, The Constituencies of the 21st Century. It concludes, “New technologies are turning the global economy upside down, creating a stark worldwide division between winners and losers, and undermining the ability of the traditional nation-state to do anything about it…. These don’t demand that we move left or right. They demand that we move forward.”
As always, I welcome your comments.
– Are Your Fingers in Your Ears?
– It’s the Grandparents Stealing From the Grandchildren
– Why Donald Trump is the most successful president in nearly a century
– War on the Blue States
– Test the Trickle Down Theory
– A Hard Exit for the Rich
– The Constituencies of the 21st Century
It’s been an unusually busy several weeks, so it’s been unusually long since I provided an update. October was consumed, of course, with the Greater Good conference I organized – I’ll have more on that in a future update, but if you just can’t wait you can watch a video of my speech summarizing the conference here. And I spent half of November traveling in Arizona, where we’re working on strengthening the Hopi school system, and in Kentucky, working on rural economic development (and meeting several Derby-winning horses). In between, I managed to crank out four articles for US News & World Report, two for Aspenia (one of which is forthcoming this month), and three more for The Atlantic now in the queue for publication.
So, there’s a lot for future updates!
But I’m writing today to share with you a column by the great Thomas Edsall in this morning’s New York Times, “Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears,” in which he refers to a piece I wrote last week in US News and then quotes extensively from an exchange he and I had over the weekend. I’ll just let Edsall do the talking – and the quoting – from here on:
I am quoting [Karen] Stenner [author of “The Authoritarian Dynamic”] — and later in this column, the public policy analyst Eric Schnurer — at length because they both make arguments about complex ideas with precision and care….
Eric Schnurer, a writer and public sector management consultant who has worked for many Democratic politicians and presidential candidates, addresses what he sees as the lack of recognition on the part of liberals of what motivates conservative voters.
“Both sides of this increasingly polarized divide see the other as trying to extirpate their way of life — and not inaccurately,” Schnurer wrote in “War on the Blue States” in U.S. News and World Report earlier this month:
Blue America spent the last eight years dictating both economic and cultural changes invalidating virtually every aspect of Red America. Liberals see all that as both righteous and benevolent — we’re both promoting better values and willing to help train them to be more like us.
Schnurer elaborated on this line of thought in an email:
The prototypical Trump voter sees a changing America leaving him behind; part of this is economic, part of it demographic, part cultural. I think liberals tend to see this as a thin cover for racism, a reflection of troglodyte viewpoints, and in any event unwarranted as the world these folks are resisting would be better even for them if only they’d let it, by giving up their benighted religious views, accepting job training in the new technologies, and preferably moving to one or the other coasts or at least the closest major city.
Red and blue America often draw diametrically opposed conclusions from the same experiences and developments, Schnurer contends:
I don’t think there’s much argument that the modern economy is killing off small towns, US-based manufacturing, the interior of the US generally, etc. There is, or could be, an argument as to whether that’s just the necessary functioning of larger economic forces, or whether there are political choices that have produced, or at least aided and abetted, those outcomes. In any event, while most of us in Blue World see these changes as beneficent, they have had devastating effects on the economies of “red” communities.
Schnurer observes that
This is a classic political problem of general benefit at the cost of specific individual harm. At a minimum, “we” — as a country but also as a self-styled progressive subset of that country — have given inadequate thought to those harms and how to ameliorate them; but I think you can also make the argument that we have exacerbated them.
Long-term trends may be working in favor of the left, as the recent governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey suggest, but liberals, Schnurer argues, are using policy to accelerate the process without determining the costs:
For example, we could adopt protectionist policies, which of course we haven’t because both mainstream Democrats and Republicans see them as counterproductive in the long term; but we have also attempted more actively to steer the economy more quickly to the likely, proper, outcome by shifting national tax and spending priorities toward new energy technologies, and away from fossil fuels.
Schnurer notes that
You don’t have to buy the right’s “war on coal” rhetoric to accept that, even if that’s the direction the world is headed, anyway, hastening coal’s demise and shifting federal subsidy policy away from it and into alternative energy sources will have a negative economic effect on certain communities.
In addition to the economic setbacks experienced in heavily Republican regions of the country, Schnurer, himself a liberal, argues that blue America has over the last decade declared war on the “red way of life.”
He makes a case very similar to Stenner’s:
The political, economic, and cultural triumph nationwide of a set of principles and realities essentially alien to large numbers of Americans is viewed as (a) being imposed upon them, and (b) overturning much of what they take for granted in their lives — and I don’t think they’re wrong about that. I think they’ve risen in angry revolt, and now intend to give back to the “elite” in the same terms that they’ve been given to. I don’t think this is good — in fact, I think it’s a very dangerous situation — but I think we need to understand it in order to responsibly address it.
Do liberals in fact need to understand — or empathize with — their many antagonists, the men and women who are sharply critical of the liberal project?
Please read Edsall’s full piece in today’s Times. And I’ll have more soon on what I wanted to share with you from my other writing. Until then – as always – I welcome your comments.
– Tom Edsall’s colum: Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears
– My US News piece: War on the Blue States
This past weekend was the first Greater Good Gathering – something I hope will become not just an annual event but part of a larger initiative to promote the “greater good” globally. What does this mean? I’ll be discussing that in more detail in several articles and in a future update – but you can already read this coverage of the conference:
In my own remarks at the conference, I defined my view of “the greater good” as something not partisan or ideological, but rather simply “advancing the good of others than just yourself.” Below is one of the “graphic illustrations” from the conference, summarizing my remarks.
A similar theme was struck by our keynote speaker, Martin Luther King III:
As I discussed in my piece this week for US News & World Report, Live More Life, “For me, this has always been the basis for a particular concern with justice and fairness.” The article relates these “macro” issues to more personal concerns that start from my learning during the conference that one of our cats was dying. “I’ve come to see these passings as less about the awesome finality of death than the wonder of life,” I wrote, which takes us to the heart of this week’s missive:
[W]e can and must make the most of the time we have. The literary critic Harold Bloom, in his interpretation of “The Book of J,” one of the main source documents of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible, focuses on the image of King David.… Despite (if not, indeed, because of) his all-too-human failings – his passion not just for God, but also for conquest, for women, for all around him – David personified an ethos of “more life” that Bloom explicates from all the “J” text as God’s central aim. That doesn’t necessarily mean more years, but it does mean that the purpose of life is to wring as much from those years as possible.
But living life fully cannot possibly mean living life selfishly: To confine one’s concerns to one’s self is to limit oneself even more in time and space than the constraints nature already imposes on us. Why would one do that? In fact, my greatest concern for our country in this time of Donald Trump is not the repugnance that flows from Trump himself, but rather that a near-majority of Americans would embrace an ethos that concerns itself with nothing but the self….
People often shrug at injustice with the words, “Life isn’t fair.” Well, no, it isn’t. But while life itself places conditions upon us, our unique intelligence and moral sense give us the ability to transcend those constraints, to make life, and the world around us, more fair. To do so – not just for ourselves, but even more so for others – is how we, too, pursue “more life.” We ought all weep those times we cannot.
This piece was, in many ways, an unintended bookend to my reaction to the Las Vegas shootings that appeared two weeks ago. As I noted at the very beginning of Change Our Violent Culture, “Las Vegas made one thing clear: No matter the size of the massacre, nothing will lead to gun control legislation in this country.” But, I continued, “frankly, I don’t think we have a violent society because guns are readily available: Rather, guns are readily available because we are a violent society. That’s what really needs to change.” After a discussion of the constitutional and practical impediments to stricter gun laws, I turned to my central argument:
[U]ltimately, combating antisocial behavior, whether words or weapons, is, as conservatives like to assert, a matter of culture more than law…. This goes for everyone: If you’re stockpiling death-dealing weaponry, you’re part of the problem, not the solution. But if you patronize violent movies, buy products that advertise on violent TV shows, let your kids play violent video games, honor singers of violent lyrics, or vote for politicians who cynically promote firearms in bars and schools while banning them (for obvious reasons) from the government buildings where they work, then you’re part of the problem, too.
Because a nation that acted like shooting people is wrong, every day, wouldn’t also experience a mass shooting virtually every day.
I’m heartened that surprisingly large numbers of people seem to see the Greater Good initiative as a ray of hope in an otherwise dark time. Because, as always, where there’s life, there’s hope.
As usual, I welcome your comments below!
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In the past month, I’ve written a trifecta of articles on a diverse set of issues in the news – the cultural divide within the country, international relations, Puerto Rico’s needs. But they all have one thing in common: the destructive nature of Donald Trump. Here are the highlights – but first a reminder:
Check out the incredible line up of Speakers and register TODAY! Space is limited.
Let’s start with Puerto Rico, which I wrote about this week in US News & World Report. I’ve spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico in the last several years, working on the Commonwealth’s fiscal situation and economy. Puerto Rico offers – as did New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – an unusual opportunity for creative solutions, some of which I discuss in this article.
These will require resources. Yet Trump uttered “jaw-dropping comments in Puerto Rico itself” like, “It’s a great trip. Your weather is second to none,” while complaining that “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.” The headline on the piece, Trump’s Past, Puerto Rico’s Future, doesn’t quite lay on the irony as thickly as I’d intended, but here’s the main argument:
How did Trump recover from the unmitigated disaster of his own financial choices? By declaring bankruptcy, refusing to pay his bills and restructuring in ways that left him an income and everyone else with the debts. Instead of railing against the Puerto Ricans for their failure to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, in this instance Trump for once actually could profitably offer his preferred example for everything: himself.
… Puerto Rico needs a fresh chance to restructure operations, escape its debt, obtain massive new infusions of cash, and rebrand itself as a leader. And it needs all the rest of us to be complicit in that. Just as Donald Trump did.
This begins to get at the point that Trump’s personal brand of dysfunctionality both epitomizes and drives virtually all the spiraling challenges facing the country today. The State of Nation-States is a somewhat academic piece tackling “a point Trump made in passing” in his speech to the United Nations: “that, as he put it, ‘the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.’” This proposition is debatable because the original impetus for the nation-state “was to reduce violence at the international level … while giving nation-states explicit and unlimited control over violence within their borders – not simply policing against violence but wielding it against their own citizens however they see fit.” Until a year or so ago, most Americans and Europeans would have agreed with “circumscrib[ing] the rights of nations to do whatever they want to the peoples within their borders” – i.e., “human rights” – but global changes are making many more sympathetic to authoritarian regimes.
The new virtual economy leapfrogs borders and generates changes that are leaving many behind economically and undermining aspects of their lives that they until now have taken for granted. For those less globally connected, the threats – physical, cultural, religious and economic (as well as cosmopolites who don’t seem to mind all those) – all seem associated with territoriality. The traditional nation-state therefore appears to be their bulwark, forging an odd, new coalition between traditionalists in cutting-edge economies and repressive states with extractive economies – personified in the rise of Donald Trump.
That takes me to the piece I grappled with for weeks and rewrote multiple times in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s kulturkampf reaction to it – The Rise of Zero-Sum Politics – which concluded:
For all the Hitler comparisons, Trump is really more reminiscent of Mao: Besides seething resentment and authoritarianism, Mao’s most notable personality trait was a constant need to throw everything around him into chaos. Having fractured the Republican Party into its constituent parts and driven a wedge between them, Trump, with his unerring sense for disruption, now has embraced the opposition.
I ended with a perhaps implausible prediction: Eventually, “Trump will endorse some form of single-payer health care plan” – not because he supports the idea (he obviously has no clue on health policy), but rather because “it would wipe Obamacare off the books” and “rupture the Democrats as badly as he has already his own party.” We’ll see if I’m right.
As usual, I welcome your comments below!
Martin Luther King III, Harvard historian, “Top Global Thinker” on technology, state and local government innovators, established and rising social entrepreneurs – and you
The program for The Greater Good Gathering continues to expand and firm up. I wanted to let you know of new additions just this week – and encourage you to get your conference registration and hotel reservations in ASAP, while the Early Bird rates are still in effect.
Here are the headlines:
Conference Keynoter: The big news is that Martin Luther King III will deliver a keynote speech at the Saturday conference session, speaking on Doing Good in the 21st Century. In addition, Johnny J. Mack, former Chief Administrative Officer of the MLK, Jr. Center in Atlanta will moderate a Saturday panel on the future of economic justice.
Framing the Future: In what we hope will provide an interesting change-of-pace, a pair of very different thought-leaders will provide brief presentations and Q&A with attendees on the deeper issues that frame our entire discussion. In his latest book, Once Within Borders, Harvard historian Charles Maier tracks the epochal changes that have defined territories over five centuries and pays close attention to our present moment, asking in what ways modern nations and economies still live within borders and to what degree our societies have moved toward a post-territorial world. He’ll be followed by Dr. Kalev Hannes Leetaru, one of the leading innovators of the internet era, and one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, who will address where technology is taking government and the nation-state in the future.
Government Innovation: Some of the most innovative leaders in Rhode Island state government will be joining several of our panels, including Governor Gina Raimondo’s advisors on government innovation and Macky McCleary, a business-process innovator who now heads the state’s public utilities commission and formerly was director of business regulation. Governor Raimondo and Senate Sheldon Whitehouse, who just published a book on cleaning up the federal government, have also been invited to appear on the Friday dinner panel discussing the future of government, moderated by former Delaware Governor Jack Markell.
Social Venture Funders: The leaders of several different creative social venture funds – doing for social progress what venture capital did for technology – will be discussing how approaches to social change are quickly evolving. Kim Syman, Managing Partner of New Profit in Boston, and Kelly Ramirez, CEO of Social Enterprise Greenhouse in Providence, are incubating some of the leading creative solutions, both for-profit and not-for-profit, to a range of social challenges, and they’ll be telling us about what these are and what else they see on the horizon.
Innovative Entrepreneurs: We’re lining up a number of creative doers implementing business models to drive social change. These include established business leaders like Maximilian Weiner, who has founded a social enterprise in the Inclusive Insurance space that is providing low and moderate income Americans with free insurance – and rising stars who are current Brown students or recent graduates, like Stefanie Kaufman, the founder and Executive Director of Project LETS, which advocates for disability rights and creates inclusive communities for people with mental illness.
And please share this invitation.
The Greater Good Gathering is fast approaching. The program is coming together, and I hope we can count on seeing you there for a weekend of discussion on technology, change, the future of government and public policy, and how best to advance the greater good in the 21st Century. All we need is for you to complete your registration today. Reduced prices on rooms and meals end on Friday.
The conference will be held in Providence, Rhode Island, Friday evening, October 20, through Sunday lunch, October 22.
The panels and speakers include:
We need you there – but space is limited (and so is the time to register and get the lowest room rates).
Please let us know today that you’re coming: https://www.greatergoodgathering.org/registration
And don’t forget to reserve a room: https://www.greatergoodgathering.org/conference-fee-hotel.
And please share this invitation.
It was an unusually busy August! I’d like to update you on a few goings-on – most importantly, the Greater Good Gathering that I described in my last update. This is the first annual “Greater Good” conference, Democracy, Citizenship, and the Greater Good: Charting a Path in Changing Times, part of a larger, long-term effort aimed at the future.
The Gathering is now set for October 20-22 (Friday evening through Sunday lunchtime) in Providence, Rhode Island. We are in the process of finalizing the program, with a fantastic lineup of speakers already confirmed, and other panelists we are waiting to confirm. Most importantly, the Greater Good Gathering official website is now live, where you can stay up-to-date on the program, register and book your hotel rooms at the historic Biltmore Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island, where the Gathering will be held.
As you’ll see, confirmed speakers already include a former governor, a law professor on cybersecurity advising the World Intellectual Property Organization, a nationally-recognized communications expert, award-winning advocates for their work addressing human trafficking, the CEO of a major health care reform organization, the author of the nation’s first “Medicaid-For-All” legislation, the first woman and youngest person ever to lead a major AFL-CIO labor federation, one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, and the co-founder of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics – among others.
We’ll be discussing:
-Public Sector Innovation: Can Government Be Saved?
-Defending Democracy & The Future of the Public Good
-Technology and Power: A History of the Future
-Up and Coming Innovators
-Public Good Beyond the Public Sector
-Application & Illustration: Health Care
There will also be plenty of time for networking and mentoring. Conference registration includes a welcome dinner, and healthy full breakfasts and lunches, at the Biltmore Hotel. Space is limited, so please register today.
Meanwhile, in the last month, our country has been fraying in ways unseen since the civil rights and Vietnam War era. As I wrote a few weeks ago in Government Untethered: “Some people find frightening the notion that countries as we know them – including our own – are on the verge of splitting apart. Others find it crazy. Scrolling through my news feed on a single, representative day last week … I found it simply to be the new normal.” Concluding with the story of the Venezuelan opposition’s attempts to create essentially a parallel, virtual democracy in the face of an increasingly-authoritarian government, I asked whether, in the long term,
a government, and its army, [can] hold territory where it has lost large swaths of the population? As people increasingly find the means to unite and construct self-governing mechanisms outside of “government,” can they actually opt-out of governments that don’t represent them? That’s a proposition that Venezuelans will be testing in coming weeks…. This isn’t just esoteric futurism anymore: It’s the daily news.
But, despite the new-technology veneer, all of this has roots that go back to the very beginnings of human civilization. In The Age-Old Rural Conflict, I wrote about the famous story of Cain and Abel as allegory for the triumph of settled agriculture – the New Economy of its day – over pastoralism. Cain is then portrayed in the Bible as, not coincidentally, moving on from murdering his herdsman brother to founding a major city.
The Cain and Abel story reflects a particular incident – the transition to settled agriculture and, as a result, urbanism – in the long history of technological change killing off prior economic, and attendant cultural and religious, arrangements. Such transitions aren’t peaceful, and they haven’t ended. The resulting sense of threat and hostility can reach Biblical proportions.
I’m thinking about both Good and Evil more right now, as I’ll be teaching a new course about them – called “Deep Policy” – this winter at Union Theological Seminary. Instead of talking about what policies might best address the challenges we face in such areas as crime control, inequality, discrimination, repression, environmental destruction, or a host of others, the course will ask, What drives these challenges to begin with and what – if anything – can we do to prevent them? To do this, we will draw upon and attempt to synthesize a wide range of disciplines, from theology and philosophy to chaos and game theory, ethics to evolutionary biology, psychology to economics – and, of course, public policy. In short, we will take an interdisciplinary approach to how wrong occurs – and how to right it.
I’ll have more on these subjects – and a few other upcoming conferences I’m organizing – in future updates.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below.
Today I’m happy to announce the new initiative I’m proudest of – and to ask for your help and involvement.
On October 19-21, I’ll be cosponsoring with my undergrad alma mater, Brown University, the first annual “Greater Good” conference, Democracy, Citizenship, and the Greater Good: Charting a Path in Changing Times, part of a larger, long-term effort aimed at the future.
Several years ago, my friend Tracy Sefl urged me to think about a fellowship at the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which I had attended, or at UChicago, where I teach. That got me thinking, however, about what such an Institute might look like at Brown, where I’d also taught several years earlier in the public policy program. I liked the IOP concept of bringing fellows of diverse backgrounds to campus to interact with each other, permanent faculty, and students in a robust and creative way. It fit well with Brown’s basic interdisciplinary approach – and, given the collapsing boundaries I see ahead between “government” and non-governmental entities, I felt “public policy” studies should embrace a far wider range of subjects than the typical MPP curriculum.
I began to think about an “Institute” bringing together scholars across all disciplines to ponder how their fields could better address issues of social impact … of the “greater good.” I particularly want to encourage college students to think seriously about how their eventual lives and intellectual pursuits could contribute to the greater good, whatever their professional goals. And my own interests have gravitated in recent years away from contemporary public policy questions, like how best to means-test entitlements (the subject of my “master’s thesis” at the K-School) toward deeper factors producing the recurring tragedies, wrongs, and follies of human history (on which I’m piloting a course this coming winter, as I’ll discuss in a future update): I’m looking to create a place to think longer, deeper, and with others on these issues instead of just the press of today’s policy challenges.
The result was a proposal for something tentatively entitled the “Brown Institute for the Greater Good,” or BIGG. While trying to figure out how to make BIGG a reality, something else occurred.
When I merged my consulting firm, Public Works, into Sequoia Consulting Group last year, I intended, besides expanding my teaching and writing, to take the stuff I’ve been teaching and writing about and launch an effort to make new models of sustainable public goods work in the here-and-now.
So, last summer, I wrote up a concept paper, and asked a few friends with diverse backgrounds – in social ventures, finance, technology, non-profits, public policy – to spend an afternoon sitting around my house brainstorming how to turn the crazy idea of a “government biz” into an actual, economically-sustainable business venture. I invited ten people, figuring that three or four might agree to help me as a personal favor; to my surprise, they all wanted to come join the discussion. Given the enthusiastic response, I invited a few more. And a few more. Until we wound up with a 25-person, two-day “retreat” at my home.
Some of my former students came and presented papers they wrote for my course, on for-profit business models to bring healthy meals to food deserts or create private peace-keeping forces. Congressman Dwight Evans described his efforts to bring creative financial, education and nutrition programs to poorer areas of Philadelphia. Kyle Zimmer talked about the self-sustaining model of her organization, First Book, that has helped millions of poor kids across America. And a colleague of fellow Brown alums Laura Germino and Gregg Asbed gave a presentation on the market-driven private enforcement system they created to protect farmworkers.
I set aside the last hour for everyone to name the single best idea to come out of all this. I thought people would suggest I focus my “government biz” first on college affordability, or health care. Instead, everyone focused more on the broader discussion and wanted to make this gathering into an annual conference on the “greater good.”
So, while I’m still working on launching the “government biz” (more on that in a future update), I also approached Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service, which readily agreed to host and co-sponsor this event as the first small step toward my eventual BIGG goal. And the rest, as they say is – or hopefully will be – history.
The conference agenda is below. We’d love to have you join us for 44 hours of exciting dialogue in Providence this October 19-21. And we need your input on who else you know (or know of) who would like to come or ought to be invited to participate in this endeavor. Please help us make this conference both “greater” and “good” by getting involved in whatever way you can!
As always, I look forward to hearing from you.
The mechanisms by which societies govern themselves – how they define, create, promote, and defend the “Greater Good” – will be increasingly refashioned and dispersed, and increasingly “multi-polar,” in the 21st Century. Technological advances are changing the ways that people can aggregate with or separate from others, thus changing the nature of “society” and “government.” They are reducing marginal costs and creating new markets, making some things profitable that used to be unprofitable, and others unprofitable that used to be highly profitable – making it possible for some things that used to be thought of as the proper domains of private enterprise to become potentially collective, social or public activities, and vice versa. They’re reducing the importance of location, and to some extent time; they’re changing the relative value of tangible and intangible resources.
All of these changes are profoundly changing all aspects of human society and culture, on both the level of the lived daily experiences of individuals and the level of societies, nations, and the world itself. The “Greater Good” conference is a part of addressing these larger concerns. Our interest is in looking deeply and interdisciplinary, at how the means for addressing and promoting the Greater Good may be changing in today’s world – and that includes the “technology” of how we, as multiple individuals, collectively interact and govern ourselves – and how to address and adapt to those changes.
It thus conceives of “public policy” as something potentially broader than governmental action – in the sense of public entities or nation-states – and looks at “governance” of the human enterprise as potentially encompassing non-governmental, for-profit, non-territorial, non-profit, and as-yet-undreamed-of mechanisms. Our interest is what such changes are coming in the 21st Century, how they will increase or decrease the possibilities for human progress and well-being, and – crucially, in distinguishing this from other “futurism” discussions – what we should and (because of such changes themselves) can do to either “ride this wave” or “bend this curve” so as best to promote the Greater Good.
Day 1: Thursday, October 19, 2017 – Breaking Things Apart
6:00 – 10:00 Welcome Event and Dinner
6:00 – 6:30 Reception w/ drinks and hors d’oeuvres
6:30 – 8:30 Dinner
BLOCK I: DEMOCRACY
6:30- 7:00 Introductory Remarks
Eric B. Schnurer & Mathew Johnson, PhD
7:00-8:30 Opening Debate
Defending Democracy & the Future of the Public Good
Brown President Christina Paxson has defined “Defending Democracy” as the challenge for Brown University to face in 2017. But what does this mean? What are the threats that we’re “defending” against today? Political dysfunction – ideological polarization, gerrymandering, money politics, gridlock – and resulting public disaffection? Rising authoritarianism at home and worldwide? Technology (plus the above actors) undermining the mechanics of, and faith in, the institutions of democracy? Technology imposing an undemocratic and non-private world on all of us?
These are all important – but also subsets of the larger changes that are changing the nature of societal governance in such a way that what we think of as “democracy” – collective decisions made through free and broadly open political mechanisms – is declining in efficacy. But before we can say that democracy is in danger and needs defending, we need to think more about what “democracy” means (is it just a political concept?) and what is the greater good we aim to achieve through democracy? Maybe “democracy” is declining or expiring in some ways, but expanding in other, newer ways. Technology is “democratizing” force, authority, and many other forms of power: To what extent does the decline of “political democracy” matter if it’s (and is it?) being offset by the rise of “non-political” forms of democracy? These are all questions we’ll explore in this opening debate as we prepare to address the future of “the Greater Good.”
8:30-10:00 Guests welcome to remain and network
Day 2: Friday, October 20, 2017 – Looking in Depth
BLOCK II: TECHNOLOGY
9:00 – 9:30 Keynote Address
Technological Change, Government, and the Greater Good
Technological change is what’s driving the “future of government” and the demise of current governance structures. Technology is changing the most profound aspects of humanity – and human society. It’s not simply changing the nature of politics within the existing governance paradigm – it’s changing the governance (and thus “Greater Good”) paradigm. So, what is all this technological change? What are the implications for “government” – or, more broadly, for collective and societal efforts to promote the Greater Good? And is it good or bad? We cannot talk about the Greater Good in the future without understanding these changes, which means understanding these technologies.
9:30-11:30 Panel One
Big Data: Power, Peril & Possibilities
Data are increasingly the currency of 21st Century power. Control over data is opening up tremendous possibilities for advance – and abuse – in both the public and private sectors: What does privacy mean in a world of activity trackers, Smart Houses, and social media? How is data being used to advance public welfare; how are we putting ourselves at risk? What does it mean to have data in private hands, and do we know how it is being used to promote both public welfare and private profits? Technology also has tremendous potential to drive new and inspiring ways of addressing longstanding systemic problems; in this panel, we also will hear from leaders in Brown’s efforts to make data more useful in delivery of government services, and technologists and thinkers in government who must balance public-sector gains against private/individual concerns.
11:30 – 1:00 Lunch Break
BLOCK III: INNOVATION AND PUBLIC GOOD
1:00- 2:30 Panel Two
Public Sector Innovation: Can Government Be Saved?
Government, like any other sector, is increasingly feeling the pressure of efficiency and the drive toward streamlined services. At the same time, budget pressures and hiring freezes have led to more and more services traditionally offered by the government being delivered by non-public providers. Before we turn, in the third session, to the role of non-public entities in providing public goods, this session will examine current public sector innovation; efforts to improve governmental service provision; and the tensions between public- versus private-sector provision in terms of efficiency, client orientation, service delivery, and doing more with less.
We’ll explore both what are the opportunities, and challenges, in having government face the same drivers as the private sector – and, the flip side, as private ventures increasingly assume public functions, how do we maintain public oversight? What are the tradeoffs of efficiency and democratic accountability, of equity and market forces? Issues include outsourcing and its oversight; streamlining and waste reduction; metrics and “pay for performance”; and the role of technology in enhancing government performance.
2:30- 3:00 Break
3:00 – 4:45 Panel Three
Public Good Beyond the Public Sector
Technology, and related changes in economics and ideologies, are changing the ability of governments to deliver public goods and shape social progress. The Trump Administration – and most governments at the state level – are actively taking a hatchet to government in ways that are likely to have longer-term ramifications. So, in the Trump era, a discussion about non-governmental options for pursuing the public good and the ends of “public policy” is even more essential and immediate. How might progressive values, social progress, and public goods be promoted and pursued in a Brave New World where governments are in retreat? How might we achieve the same ends through non-governmental – for-profit, non-profit, social venture, and as-yet-unimagined – ways?
This session will focus on finding new models to make “doing good” happen on its own, rather than just through remediative efforts like government programs or traditional charity, which technology is making that both necessary (as it destroys traditional social governance models) and possible (as it creates new capabilities to bring people together, to monetize and capture benefits, to coordinate and incentivize). In fact, all sorts of entities are increasingly finding ways to effect long-term change for the Greater Good, including using technology in smart and unique ways to create social innovations.
4:45-5 Closing Remarks and Thematic Wrap-Up:
Alan Harlam, Director of Social Innovation,Swearer Center for Public Service
5:00-6:00 Reception/Social Networking
6:00-onward Dinner on your own
Day 3: Saturday, October 20, 2017 – Putting It All Together
9:00 – 10:00 Networking Breakfast
BLOCK IV: APPLICATION & ILLUSTRATION: Health Care
10:00 – 11:15 Panel Four
We will draw the the conference themes together – the changing nature of democracy and public policy in the face of technological change, and the resulting emerging responses in not just the public but also the private and “third” sectors – through their application in a specific policy area: in this case, the issue dominating the US political system in 2017, health care. We will discuss possible public policy alternatives to the abandonment of Obamacare and a federal role – as well as the ability (and, in fact, increasing reality) of innovative, Greater Good-oriented insurers and providers – not just government – to drive these changes through the market.
BLOCK V: CONCLUSION
11:15 – 12:30 Up and Coming Innovators
This session is an opportunity to hear from students and recent graduates whose innovations have been making waves. They are thinking beyond simple tax structures and are examples of the future of public good innovation – optimistic thinking that builds corporate responsibility into the business model from the ground up.
12:30 – 2:00 Closing Interactive Discussion over Lunch
Panel moderators will participate in a reflective dialogue about the themes of the conference. What questions arose in the various panels that remain unanswered? What ideas sparked further thinking? What synergies were created? What do you hope people will carry forward?
As you know, for the past several years, I’ve been writing about the challenges of illiberal and antidemocratic forces, rising alienation of the failing middle class, and technological changes making governance and social cohesion increasingly difficult. I’m starting to shift more toward trying to sketch out solutions, and actually creating new initiatives that, in their own small ways, may – in the words of an old colleague, Bill Drayton – make a “scratch on history.”
The next few updates will be unveiling the new platforms and initiatives I’ve been working on that I hope will help make more of a contribution. In this update, I want to start with several articles I’ve written recently that begin to spell out the framework for those efforts.
In a prior update, I mentioned my recent trip to Brussels, where I visited both the battlefield of Waterloo and the headquarters of the European Commission. In A Modern Waterloo, I described how a high-ranking Euro bureaucrat responded to my questions about the opposition to European (and, more generally, global) integration with the retort, “It doesn’t matter.” Similarly, “the great and good of Europe could congratulate themselves after Waterloo that the revolt of the lower orders, well, it didn’t matter”:
Those who believed that Waterloo meant they could now get back to ruling subject populations as they had for the previous half-millennium were therefore soon to be sorely disappointed…. The democratizing aspirations of the deplorables so feared by the aristocracy ultimately proved to be not only on the right side of history but also right.
That we’re at the end of another similar fin de siècle is evident even in such seemingly-quotidian issues as the never-ending health care struggle, which, I argued in Life after Obamacare, is really the last battle of the last century and the politics of the welfare state: “[I]n today’s polarized either/or environment, both parties are locked … in a duel to the death between a pre-20th Century vision of a market unpoliced by government and a mid-20th Century vision of government supplanting the market.” Other alternatives will soon overtake both positions “that better reflect the direction the world is headed – one of weakened states where other entities, including businesses, provide more and more of what used to be thought of as government services.”
Is there hope of resolution in this increasingly polarized society? Yes, but perhaps in diversity more than consensus – if we can learn to live with that. In an Independence Day riff on a Harvard Business Review study (of all things), I spent some time musing on How environmental factors affect our politics. The study discussed in the HBR found that people in more densely-populated areas tend to be more “future-oriented,” which leads to all sorts of behavioral and attitudinal differences:
Environmental factors – like community size and density – not surprisingly affect the strategies organisms (like, say, people) adopt … for every other aspect of dealing with their interactions with others. This includes fundamental questions about how to structure those dealings – centralized or decentralized, coercion by law or through social ostracism – and issues that flow from these such as taxes versus charity…, attitudes toward crime and terrorism, receptivity to immigration and trade, regulation of business activities or firearms, in short virtually everything.… Which may mean that, if we are to remain United States, and celebrate many more holidays of shared nationhood and shared values together, we will need to learn better to accept that the other side may be coming from a different place on major issues not because these other Americans are evil or irrational, but simply, well, coming from a different place.
And that brings me to my piece this week in US News: A Better Future for Democrats: We need to start recognizing both the challenges and the opportunities that an increasingly centripetal world poses to modern ideologies. “The left needs to reconceptualize what ‘government’ – or, more specifically, liberalism – might look like in a post-industrial, post-mass-produced world. The ability to individually customize mass-produced items is the hallmark of the New Economy.”
The challenge for progressivism and liberalism today is not how it can compete with the revival of anti-liberal ideologies of the 1930s with a similarly retro agenda from the ’30s – it is how to further progressive aims like meaningful opportunity, economic security and constraint of the powerful in a world where the traditional enforcement mechanisms of collective action to achieve these aims are increasingly undermined by emerging technologies.
The same technologies that give rise to the challenges also offer solutions. I’ll be discussing possible solutions – and the initiatives I’m launching – in future updates over the next month.