In the past several weeks, I’ve had an unusual number of opportunities to speak to various groups about things I’m working on – and in the next few months I’ll be speaking and teaching at universities and conferences from Providence, Rhode Island, to Nairobi, Kenya. And, of course, I hope to welcome all of you to the second Greater Good Gathering, in New York City this November.
But today I want to share with you the talk I gave at the recent Impact Summit in New York City, a three-day conference for computer science students from all over the country interested in social good. Following a 24-hour “blockchain hackathon,” and discussions on blockchain and artificial intelligence, I was the last to speak on a panel the last day on “The Future of Democracy.” I’ve got to warn you: When I finished, the moderator – a college contemporary – reacted that my presentation was “interesting” but “scary.”
This is a reaction I hear frequently from my peers – but not younger Americans. People often say they find my predictions “scary” or “depressing” because I talk about things we take for granted and care about – like countries and democracy – changing dramatically in just the next few decades. But I don’t think that’s scary or depressing – just different. The world is very different today from, say, the Middle Ages, and if you told people then about the radical changes coming – in religion, government, social structure, commerce – they probably would’ve called it “scary” and “depressing,” too … but I don’t think any of us would want to go back. We have no choice but to move forward – our choice is what we do with that. And no-one knows that better than today’s young people.
In fact, I asked the students, “Do any of you find this ‘scary’?” None raised their hands. “Of course not,” I concluded to general laughter, “because you already know this is what’s coming.” I had opened (again to general laughter) with a piece I wrote two years ago:
Pessimism about democracy is widespread today – largely because of President Trump – but democracy has actually been declining worldwide for the last two decades, for a wide range of reasons, basically spurred by technologically-driven changes in the economy:
As I’ve been saying for a while, countries as we know them (or, more precisely, “nation-states”) are being undermined by this technological change, just like “business models” in other fields of human activity from music and publishing to manufacturing, transportation, and lodging.
We really shouldn’t be surprised, then, that governments and democracies are – like these other models – in eclipse … as we know them. Democracy – by which we mean political, particularly representative, democracy – is in dangerous decline and under competitive threat.
But the world is also being radically democratized in other ways, providing a wide range of choices thanks to technologies – particularly blockchain – that will go much further than currently imagined to disrupt the world we know and provide us with new bases for forming communities and governments. This is already happening – e.g., in Estonia, which has put all its government services online through blockchain and started making them available for people anywhere in the world:
As this becomes more and more common, the line between “public sector” and “private sector” will blur and disappear – in fact, it’s already doing so:
Businesses are increasingly competing against governments to provide, essentially, “governmental” services – including adjudication, regulation, enforcement, security, intelligence, and waging war. Some of these aren’t even so new. But here’s the problem: Some services governments traditionally provide – “public goods” like education, public health, justice and public safety – are at risk of disappearing, for a simple reason: They don’t make money. As technology provides citizens with greater ability to “opt-out” and choose alternatives, public goods are becoming harder to fund because, by definition, they can’t exist in a world where people opt-out. Until now.
Fortunately, technologies like blockchain will allows us to create new models making it easier to:
… all the things we created government for. And it’s that – not “coins” or “registries” – that represents the true promise of blockchain. So, I’ve been developing a whole new “operating system” for the age-old technology called “government.”
It will deliver what we want from “governments” and “communities” – but decreasingly find today in either the public or private sectors: Enabling people to invest in each other’s futures – through things like educational opportunity, job training, day care and family supports, and affordable insurance against health care costs and life’s other vicissitudes. Creating parks and public places. Providing security and privacy for both people and their data and identities. Using collective action and market clout to protect consumers and to lower costs, and even drive pay-for-performance in service delivery and other “public policy” improvement. We call this new “government biz”:
And we’re going to want you to get involved.
I’ll tell you how in my next update.
As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.
Out in New Mexico recently, I was able to mix kayaking over Class 3 rapids, hiking at Tent Rocks National Monument, and eating at celebrated restaurants, with catching up with old friends – like former Governor Bill Richardson. In between, I spent some time at Santa Fe’s first-class museums.
One of these, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, covered economic and cultural changes over a millennium ago along the Mogollon Rim – a sharp drop-off between high and low deserts that stretches across almost all of Arizona and New Mexico, where I spent a lot of my youth. The original “basket-weaver” culture above the Rim is so-called because it knew no pottery. But eventually, the superior technology of pottery-making filtered its way in from elsewhere. So did the bow, whose superior firepower provided a more convenient means of defense than retreating each night atop the Rim, enabling villages to relocate down the steep escarpment to the valley below, where their crops grew. Here, in an ancient world far different from our own, communities were being uprooted, and perhaps for the unfortunate basket-weavers their source of livelihood destroyed, by “transborder” flows of new technologies and ideas.
Similar historical developments have been on my mind lately. My friends at the European branch of the Aspen Institute recently asked me to write on two seemingly-different subjects – the Trump Administration’s relationship with business, and the future of cities. But understanding where we are today, and where we’re heading, requires seeing these as merely the latest incarnation of tensions going back to the dawn of humanity.
My forthcoming piece for the journal Aspenia, entitled Urbi et Orbi (“To the City and the World,” the Pope’s traditional greeting), takes a roughly 60,000-year tour of the “[t]ension between nomadic, hunter-gatherer, and even pastoralist lifestyles, on the one hand and sedentism,” on the other. With a quick recap of the Cain and Abel story – about which I’ve written before as a parable of economic and political change not unlike today – the piece summarizes the intertwined emergence of both city and state as sources of increased sophistication and change, but also increased inequality and economic exploitation. Noting that “perhaps the most exploitive social and economic relations were always those between cities and the more traditional agricultural communities in their hinterlands,” the piece turns to an extended comparison between the food chains found in the natural world (drawn from my readings for Deep Policy discussed in the last update) and those in human societies:
The tripartite division between producers, transformers and predators described above generated the same dynamic that we see in today’s populism…. There is thus nothing new in today’s global clash between a largely urban, cosmopolitan, socially liberal society based on a transnational New Economy and a largely exurban, place-oriented, traditionalist society rooted in an increasingly-secondary or tertiary extractive economy.
My other recent article, Trump’s traditional Republican economic choices, argues that, despite the initial horror of the business elite and GOP establishment, they have all largely made their peace with Donald Trump – because his policies are really “perfectly consistent with what Republicanism, and to a lesser extent ‘conservatism,’ have long become.” These policies are instead – predictably – squeezing the very voters who supported and continue to support Trump and Republicans. As Urbi et Orbi shows, the same factors have played out historically in every polity since Ancient Greece.
I’m often asked by people on the Left why they should care about these benighted voters. The first answer is that peoples whose cultures and livelihoods (regardless of whether you share them) are threatened by change – whether the advent of pottery or the Internet – are precisely those about whom the Left ought to care.
The second is that, “The tragedy of the moment is that Trump’s opponents are offering very little to those on the short end of the stick from these developments, who are right to be angry – while Trump’s appeal to them is based purely on selfishness, not on what is best for the country as a whole. Unfortunately, the same can be said of the entire thrust of Trumponomics.” The piece concludes:
The symbiosis of government and business into one big rent-seeking enterprise is precisely what principled conservatism has opposed for decades, and criticized in modern liberalism…. Candidate Trump explicitly campaigned against just this – and yet, as both a private individual and as President, Donald Trump literally personifies it. In Trump’s America, more so than ever before, government itself is up for sale. This represents perhaps the logical end-point of the short-term, self-serving ideologies that passed for “conservatism” or “pro-business” in recent decades – but it also has represented the end-point of democratic and capitalist decline throughout history.
As always, I welcome your comments below.
I recently taught a new course – “Deep Policy: Wrong and How to Right It” – at Union Theological Seminary. This was a “pilot” or “workshop” (12 hours over only two days) for what I hope becomes another of my ongoing pursuits, part of the “Institute” behind the Greater Good Initiative I previously wrote you about here and here.
The origins lay in my dissatisfaction with most policy discussions today. We know a good deal about what works and what doesn’t in education, health care, criminal justice, and most major (domestic) issues: We aren’t failing to create better schools, or health coverage, or penal systems because we don’t know how, technically – we’re simply frozen ideologically. I’ve grown less enamored of studying, say, how to secure Social Security’s long-term solvency – it’s really not that hard! – and more interested in why we struggle over venality and insensitivity, generation after generation, millennium after millennium.
I spent the last several months reading extensively in fields relevant to this inquiry: game theory, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, the study and practice of warfare. I was intrigued several years ago by a comment from a student of mine at Brown about “why societies go crazy” – Nazi Germany, for instance – which initially suggested psychological studies like the famous work of Stanley Milgram, but it also reminded me of the literature on complex-systems failures and disasters, which in turn are reminiscent of complexity and chaos in nature. Trying to distill and teach all this led to some thoughts I’d like to share … and hear your reactions:
I started with the notion of a spectrum of antisocial behaviors – ranging from the truly malign like killing or non-instrumental violence (“cruelty”), through less culpable behaviors ending in just-plain-stupidity. Turns out, it really breaks down into rational and irrational behaviors – and most bad behavior is actually rational. We all know that lying and deception are rampant in the natural world because they serve real purposes. It may be harder to see a value in, say, “cowardice,” but there actually is: In any lion pride, a certain percentage of lions charge into battle to risk their lives for the others, but there’s also a stable number of slackers – a pride needs both heroes with the courage to sacrifice for the greater good and self-serving cowards who survive, no matter what. The same basically holds true with cruelty: Even when it seems to serve no instrumental purpose, it almost always does (e.g., conveying intention and resolve).
As Peter Hayes discusses in his recent book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, Hitler never achieved majority support, but was elevated to office through the cowardice and self-serving (if ultimately incorrect) calculations of other politicians as to their ability to control him. Once in power, the Nazis exploited terror and, again, rational if not-exactly-admirable cowardice to gain unwilling compliance. Taken together, it’s more a systems failure than mass insanity or depravity. There are other examples of “societies gone crazy” – such as China’s Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a mass convulsion of fanaticism that killed more people than any other event in human history – but it turns out that there are instrumental reasons for fanaticism. And according to Thucydides, the entire population of Athens “went crazy” and abandoned all ethical norms in the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War – because everyone knew they wouldn’t live long enough to be punished and so acted accordingly. Alas, all this is rational, if depressing. In fact, as we’ll see, nature essentially requires chaotic processes and outcomes.
I started this exploration hoping to find a path to eliminating bad outcomes, or at least reducing them. But both game theory and natural science suggest that – as the lions illustrate – a certain amount of “wrong” is required, almost as a physical rule. It is virtually impossible to construct any sort of stable system in which the actors – people, animals, or protons – behave in a consistently self-sacrificing manner. Of course, you can’t construct a stable system, either, in which exclusive self-interest totally prevails, either. A mix is required, and the socially-best mix will involve some pro-social (“hero lions”) and, ironically, some anti-social behaviors (“slacker lions”), with most of us falling somewhere in between. This did not really surprise the seminary students; I found it dispiriting, however, to conclude that wrong is, essentially, an immutable mathematical certainty. The best we can do is not so much eliminate “wrong” as to stave it off for another day, one day at a time. However:
Perhaps, like Scheherazade in the Thousand and One Nights, we can so successfully forestall disaster one day at a time that this eventually becomes a permanent state. Unfortunately, that’s not likely. Chaotic systems in nature turn out to follow rules called “power laws” that predict the frequency and magnitude of disturbances: We know with a fair degree of certainty how often certain-sized earthquakes will occur – we just don’t know precisely when. Human events seem to follow similar power laws; as historian Niall Fergusson points out in his recent book, The Great Degeneration, these suggest we’re due for a 10.0 global political earthquake in about, oh, 2020. (That might be a good reason to re-read my piece from the eve of Trump’s election on the history of the 21st)
Despite all these bleak observations on human behavior and social breakdown, people and animals living in situations in which it makes mutual sense to cooperate find ways to do so. This is usually enforced through social norms where those who fail to comply are sanctioned. Of course, people often try to get away with bad behavior when they think they can (as in plague-stricken Athens) – but many still engage in “moral” behavior even when they don’t have to, whether that’s because nature (or nurture) has programmed that into us, or because of a rational calculation that the short-term gain of norm-breaking isn’t as valuable as the long-term benefits of being part of a norm-abiding society. You can see that all the time in highway merges where some drivers “cut” the line but most still don’t – except that we know societies also reach “tipping points” where, if too many people “cut,” then everyone does so … leading to mass gridlock.
I’ve spent my life in and around government, hoping to make both policy and political processes work better. But perhaps that isn’t the best way to make a difference – which is why I’ve focused more recently on things like the Greater Good Initiative, exploring deeper roots of social dysfunction, and social enterprises that might produce better societal outcomes. If, however, we can’t really rid the world of “wrong,” but only constrain and postpone dysfunction, perhaps a day at a time, it’s political and governance mechanisms that provide the means for doing so: Devising more “resilient systems” that can survive perturbations without spinning into chaos. Creating the communications and coordination that allow people to “escape” the Prisoner’s Dilemma and other game theory challenges. Or simply finding the compromises that let us stave off bad outcomes for one more day. So, maybe I’ve been in the right place all along….
One thing I was not prepared for was how extremely liberal these seminary students turned out to be: I rarely find myself to be the most right-wing person in the room. Their righteous indignation at the economic and political mores of our times, however, forced me to revisit and rethink a lot of the “realities” I’ve come to accept. On the other hand, their vehement denunciations of capitalism reminded me of college debates back in my day with the Marxist and Third World sets – except that Marxism, socialism and the like never came up in this discussion. It was striking the extent to which truly leftist solutions have completely vaporized – even amongst these left-y and Third World students. The students’ proposed solutions seemed essentially to be to bring back relatively mild economic redistribution programs from the Sixties. But both the nation-state and global capitalism face serious challenges from new technologies; these technologies – changing the very nature of work, ownership and capital – will require an entirely new conception of economics.
That brings me to my final, and most felicitous, discovery in teaching this course – that creative new ideas can be easily forthcoming if we just bring together committed people to discover them. In the most recent update I sent you, I discussed the plan for developing the Greater Good Initiative into, in part, a series of localized efforts to solve policy problems outside of the usual policy channels. The question is how best to do that; my concluding course segment might provide a good potential model – one I borrowed from the burgeoning “hackathon” phenomenon. We closed the course with two one-hour (all-too-brief) “policy hackathon” sessions, where the students chose from a list of intractable issues, split into small groups, spent 30 minutes brainstorming original ideas, then presented them to the class. While the students were bright and well-informed, they had no particular policy background or expertise – but in every case, and in short order, the groups produced innovative ideas unlike those coming out of think tanks and political parties today. Similar policy and social venture “hackathons” around the country are just the interactive process the Greater Good Initiative needs.
Well, at least one student took notes on my lectures….
What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
In the weeks since I sent you my last update about the Greater Good Initiative, I’ve heard from, and talked with, many of you about what this initiative could become beyond an annual conference (and we’ve already started planning for the November 2018 installment – more in a future update!). As a result, I’ve made some progress – and now I’m hoping for some further input from you.
At the most grandiose extreme, some have suggested to me that the Greater Good should be the beginnings of a new political party. While we certainly need political change – on both sides of the aisle – a new party isn’t really viable under our system (and I’m not the guy to start it). The most “successful” third party in the U.S. was the Progressives … who were so successful they went out of business: The two established parties were forced to co-opt the Progressive agenda, which then essentially became the reigning American ideology for the bulk of the 20th Century. In short, we don’t need an alternative party so much as an alternative agenda that can play the same role in the 21st Century. And that does strike me as a good function for the Greater Good Initiative.
While such an agenda starts with making government work better to redress injustice and unfairness, it also needs to address a broader range of mechanisms for change and social progress. We need to think of “governance” as something that occurs in institutions other than just the nation-state or the public sector, and “politics” as embracing not just governmental but also market and civil-society interactions (a point I made in this prior update).
So I want to make sure that the Greater Good Initiative gets beyond simply political discussion and embraces civic and economic entrepreneurship – a key theme of the first Greater Good Gathering. In recent weeks, I’ve talked with several of the young social entrepreneurs who spoke at the conference (if you haven’t yet, you should watch the video highlights of their presentations) about how best to encourage and support people like them developing non-governmental solutions to social problems. Their answer lies – as in so many areas – in supportive networks of people and information. Some of that comes in the form of incubators and co-working spaces – but it also needs to come through non-location-specific networks. We need to incorporate mechanisms for developing, encouraging and supporting social entrepreneurship – the actual doing of social change – to make this initiative a web of individual actions advancing the greater good, not just calls for a government that does so.
Most people in fact have seen in the Greater Good Initiative some sort of “distributed” process, mirroring the way I’ve argued that technologies like blockchain are going to transform society and all power structures. Nevertheless, the literature on the burgeoning phenomenon of “leaderless movements” indicates they peter out without a well-defined agenda – and that agenda has to come from some sort of “elite” or “leadership.” So the challenge is how to create an agenda with expert input and leadership while retaining the essential character of a distributed, grass-roots movement. Rather than an institutionalized “think tank,” this requires a fluid thought process – assembling experts with diverse views to “think differently” and come up with answers that the political system, with its current no-compromise dynamic, won’t entertain.
But this also can’t be just an elite-only, centralized process: This must be a process of discussion and dialogue that’s two-way, both vertically and horizontally, in which individuals and groups are free to devise their own agendas and solutions but also out of which broad consensus hopefully emerges – something like a live version of a “wiki” that starts with some sort of thoughtful core but not (like think tanks today) driven by a pre-existing ideological goal.
Each individual “node” in this network could follow its own model: a local “Greater Good Gathering” organized by folks in Gatlinburg, a monthly meet-up in Minnetonka, a “koffee klatch” in Kalamazoo, a book club in Bethesda, a discussion group in Des Moines, a social enterprise incubator in Inverness, or lone individuals in the Lone Star State, all contributing their concerns and solutions and feeding off the ideas of others in a dispersed national network devoted to building the Greater Good.
That’s what I’m working on building. How? I don’t know yet – that’s why I’m asking you. After all, that’s what’s gotten the concept this far. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
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.
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.
Growing up in Arizona, I was fascinated with Native cultures, particularly those of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. Arizona afforded ample opportunity to experience how these peoples had lived a thousand years earlier, in such ruins as Casa Grande south of Phoenix (conveniently located near the San Francisco Giants’ practice facility) and particularly Montezuma’s Castle near Sedona, a largely still-intact multi-story, mud-walled apartment complex dramatically set in the massive hollow of a red-rock cliff wall.
Most fascinating of all to me were the Hopi, who still live largely in the same villages they have populated since even before the prehistoric peoples who built Phoenix’s extensive canal system disappeared into the mists of history. Old Oraibi on Second Mesa, one of three huge, table-like formations rising from the desert floor in Hopi territory, is the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in North America.
The Hopi learned to coax agriculture from a land without water, building an elaborate cosmology based on harmony and balance with the universe and mediated by spirits represented by the famed and colorful katsinas (or “kachinas”) that appear at their frequent ceremonials. They lived a communal existence and disdained the warlike ways of others around them, especially those that began to move into the Southwest several centuries ago in response to the aggressive westward spread of the strange European civilizations that had planted themselves on the continent’s East Coast. A well-known film, with score by the modern composer Phillip Glass, juxtaposes our modern life with that of the Hopi, appropriately under the title Koyaanisqatsi – a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.”
I spent my childhood summers in northern Arizona learning to ride a horse, fire a rifle, and shoot a bow-and-arrow (two out of three of which I still do with some degree of proficiency). I also met White Bear, a Hopi artist and repository of Hopi esoteric wisdom (he was the main informant for the best-seller, Book of the Hopi), who taught me Hopi history and epistemology.
I spent a sweltering summer night camping on a desolate hillside outside Oraibi so I could rise before dawn to be among the few non-Hopi to watch the sunrise ceremonial celebrating the departure of the katsina spirits for their winter home near the Grand Canyon. Even today I keep several Hopi katsinas displayed on a special shelf in my home. I love the iconography, the colors, the timelessness rooted in the natural world of a special, ancient place. Somehow, I’ve always felt a special connection with the Hopi.
So I was thrilled when my consulting firm, Public Works, was selected to assist the Hopi Tribe in a long-term project to assess and strengthen its school system. I returned there last week for the first time in decades, to kick off the project. A big part of the assignment is helping the Hopi to find the right balance between preparing students to succeed in the challenges of a 21st Century world while at the same time preserving the distinctive Hopi values, culture, religion and even language in the face of the very same challenges. This, of course, is in many ways the same problem facing rural communities across America, although the issue is particularly acute for distinct peoples like the Hopi.
The Hopi live in roughly a dozen widely-scattered, centuries-old villages, most with their own local school and all strongly protective of their local prerogatives, local customs, even individual dialects. At the same time, they have an open enrollment system whereby students can attend the school of their choice – some traveling 90 minutes each way to attend the school their families deem best. In fact, in many ways, the Hopi schools are models of the kinds of education “reforms” we’ve studied around the country – a lithe central administration; building-based control, budgeting, and educational programming; a recognition that good principals create good learning communities that attract the best teachers and committed parents; and empowered parents who “vote with their feet” as to the school’s performance.
Of course, there’s a role even here for system-wide functions. Up in Hopi, this starts with coordinating the vast transportation network for the schools. But our tasks, as in all such performance reviews, include identifying where else efficiencies can be realized through economies of scale or coordination, or whether the community’s values can best be realized through delegation and empowerment – and, as with all things Hopi, how best to find the natural balance.
As always, I welcome your comments below.