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Government

13
Dec

Writes & Wrongs

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.

Quick Links:

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

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7
Dec

Are Your Fingers in Your Ears?

 

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.

Quick Links:

– Tom Edsall’s colum: Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears

– My US News piece: War on the Blue States

– Greater Good Gathering website

– My “Greater Good” speech

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27
Oct

Death and Life

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:

Greater Good Conference Holds Inaugural Gathering

A Gathering Seeks Levers to Rebuild Common Good

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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6
Oct

Hurricane Donald

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.

www.greatergoodgathering.org

 

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!

 

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29
Sep

Guess Who’s Coming to The Greater Good Gathering?

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 BordersHarvard 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.

If this sounds good to you, get your conference registration and hotel reservations in this week, while lower rates last.

And please share this invitation.

Best,

 

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26
Sep

Join in the Greater Good

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:

  • Can Government Be Saved? A kick-off dinner discussion with an innovative former governor, a state finance director who found a unique way to partner with the private sector to build out a technology background, and the founder of Boston’s Office of new Urban Mechanics.
  • The Future Of The Public Good. A leading national political spokesperson moderates a panel including a leading expert on technology and law, a specialist on American community, and a civic engagement social entrepreneur.
  • Technology And Power: A History Of The Future. An historian will provide perspective on the rise and fall of nation-states and territorial governance, and one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers will take us forward into what technology means for the future of states and governments.
  • Up-and-Coming Innovators. Over lunch, young social entrepreneurs will discuss the innovative social ventures they’re launching.
  • Coffee With Kim: We will transition over lunch into talking about new models of social change with a coffee discussion between me and Kim Syman of New Profit, a social venture fund, about some of the new developments in both the social venture and for-profit worlds.
  • Public Good Beyond The Public Sector. An array of for-profit and non-profit social innovators – bringing financing, insurance, educational and other opportunities to underserved populations – will discuss their efforts to harness market forces for the greater good.
  • New Models Of Economic Empowerment. Saturday will conclude with a discussion of how to empower the economically disenfranchised in a market-driven world, including activists who broke new ground in labor organizing, in driving consumer pressure for better worker treatment, and in taking the civil rights movement into the 21st Century.
  • A Networking Breakfast for tomorrow’s leaders to meet with today’s.
  • Application & Illustration: Health Care. We will draw 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 explore the role of government in health policy and how it’s playing out with Obamacare and beyond, delving into the intersection between public and private sectors, 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. Panelists include the original directors of both national and Rhode Island Obamacare implementation, the leader of the state-level movement to provide Medicaid coverage to all, and private-sector health care innovators.
  • Closing Discussion: A chance for all of us to talk together about how to move forward and next steps.

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.

 

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6
Sep

Of Good … and Evil

 



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.

Quick Links:

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19
Jul

Hinges of History

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.

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3
May

Global Disruption

I’m back at the writing – and back in the USA – after a trip to Paris to moderate two panels on the recent French elections: one on “A Whole New France and Whole New World – Politics in the Age of Populism,” with political consultants from France, the US, Russia and Turkey; the other, called “Under Fire: What Role Did the Media Play in Shaping Opinion?,” with leading French journalists.

While there, I was interviewed by the head of the French foreign correspondents’ association, Fabrice Pozzoli-Montenay, about my own take on France’s elections. This led to my piece published this morning in US News & World Report. Here’s the main argument:

Most commentators, both in France and here in the US, have taken the results as an indication that the global anti-global movement has crested…. I think reports of the demise of global disruption are premature.

What will remain true regardless of who becomes France’s next president, however, is that the two parties that have traditionally dominated French politics have imploded[:] only one-quarter of voters sided with the two major parties combined.

The success of both Macron and Le Pen – whose “party” is actually more like a “movement” resembling Trump’s – casts into doubt not simply the viability of the two long-time major parties but, even more so, of parties generally: Political parties very well might be headed the way of newspapers, TV networks, record manufacturers, hotels, cab companies and countless other “authorities” and industry incumbents that were undermined or rendered obsolete by new technologies that make it possible to unbundle services, democratize their provision, and allow consumers to assemble their own personal bundles. Just as people are increasingly their very own news sources – both as consumers and producers – so, pretty soon, might everyone be able more-or-less to form their own platform and political party, or at least a party of one, that can merge with or secede from others at will….

The US political system – with its “first past the post” allocation of offices – militates against party fragmentation, let alone such “micro-parties,” and in favor of a stable two-party system, in a way that Continental parliamentary systems do not. Otherwise, does anyone doubt that Americans already would be deserting both the Democratic and Republican parties in droves? But such grassroots unrest is something that both parties are already experiencing, with little idea of how to address. [I]t very well may be … that the aggregating and mediating function of parties is just another casualty of the atomizing and polarizing force of the new technologies on society as we have known it.

Scenes from Paris (clockwise): Moderating panel with French journalists, with French Senator Leila Aichi, at the French Senate, at Place de la Republique the morning of the poll.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump passed the 100-day milestone in his presidency. I was asked by Aspenia to comment on this from the perspective technology and the economy. The piece explores themes I’ve address repeatedly in the past year or so concerning the rising global disenchantment with the kinds of economic and social disruptions caused by the new digital economy – disenchantment that has led to the rise of Trump, Le Pen and other right-wing populist/nationalist politicians worldwide. But I believe this is only the opening phase of a larger political realignment:

As it turns out, the information industry is just as extractive as prior economies: In an interesting little book, Platform Capitalism, the British Marxist economist Nick Srnicek observes that data turn out to be simply another natural resource that our newer technologies have figured out how to extract, and how to extract value from, not unlike mining, oil drilling or agriculture before them. Meanwhile, like manufacturing, these IT industries are focused on how best to increase per-worker productivity and substitute capital for labor whenever possible. In a few years’ time, the jobs being lost to technology will be not only those of former blue-collar manufacturing workers – they also will include those of many who now consider themselves riding the crest of the New Economy wave, from Uber drivers replaced by self-driving cars to radiologists replaced by AI to composers and authors replaced by hit-producing bots. Many current Hillary voters will be joining the disgruntled Bernie and Trump supporters who see the Titans of Information as their threat.

Meanwhile, these Titans, despite their seemingly liberal politics, are proving little different from other Titans of Industry. They’re already finding common ground with the traditionally Republican wings of the Republican Congress and Trump Administration: They recently joined to repeal Obama-era prohibitions on reselling individuals’ online search histories – and just days ago the Administration unveiled its plan to eliminate Obama’s “net neutrality” rules, so that big players can further dominate the Internet. In the words of that noted political philosopher Peter Townsend: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Both the Disruption, and the Resistance, are just beginning.

You can read the full pieces here:

– Macron and Le Pen’s success in France casts doubt on political parties

– Thus Donald Trump joined the global conflict on technology

As always, I welcome your comments below!

 

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21
Mar

The Policy Debate We Need

A project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, under the direction of noted public-sector leader Stephen Goldsmith, has compiled what it regards as the 30 best reports on “Operational Excellence in Government” – and my firm, Public Works, is the author or co-author of three of these. Harvard cited our government-wide efficiency and management work in Iowa, Colorado, and Louisiana. This confirms what we’ve always said: Although we’re a small firm, we can match our record in this area against any of the largest consultancies in the world.

Meanwhile, in Washington the Trump Administration has unveiled plans to down-size government in a manner very different from how we pursue our efficiency and streamlining work. It’s the difference between hiring a surgeon to cure your ills – or a guy with a chain saw and hockey mask.

I wrote about this larger “hollowing out” of government at which the Trump Administration aims in The Hollow Men in U.S. News & World Report:

The Americas Bannon and Trump envision are depressing, but not totalitarian: One is illiberal but not necessarily authoritarian, the other authoritarian but not necessarily illiberal. Both lead to a society embodying not so much the banality of evil as the evil of banality. And where they overlap is not the creation of a fascist state, but rather the opposite: The hollowing out of the state as a viable institution. And, in that, they represent not a radical departure from the modern trajectory of the U.S. (and most other countries today) but an acceleration of it.

“All of this should be concerning,” I concluded, “but, while liberals have been warning not to ‘normalize’ Trump for the last year, the mistake is to ‘abnormalize’ him.” I elaborated on this theme in my next piece, Parallel Universe of Trump-World: “Right now, the opposition is focused on furious assaults against the very tar babies that keep Trump’s supporters in his column; such attacks will do nothing to weaken his grip on his alternative universe,” I argued.

I simply don’t agree that becoming your enemy is how to defeat him – a sentiment liberals argued vehemently in opposition to Bush-era depredations of civil liberties in the “War on Terror” but now deride as comic-book morality in the Age of Trump. How quickly our values have collapsed into not opposition, but conformance, to Trump’s.

So how should we respond to the pathologies of the Trump Administration? By focusing on policy, of course:

The real question is, What will create economic growth for the huge numbers of Americans being left behind? What will salvage the communities of an alternative universe being ground under by the advance of what is, to them, an alien culture and destructive economy?…

You really want to save truth, justice and the American Way? Stop seeing every Trump outrage as a cause for, well, outrage: Stop “ab-normalizing” him. Embrace the pathetic reality: He is a politician like any other, to be judged by his vacuous policies that fail even his supporters. Offer real policy alternatives that will protect the families of those who wrongly believe he is their hope. Start doing that, reality will take care of itself.

And that takes us to this week’s policy-oriented post – on the appallingly bad, long-awaited Republican alternative to Obamacare:

[T]he Republican health care bill concerns itself mainly with stripping millions of their coverage, recreating those halcyon health care days of the Bush years for most, and providing massive subsidies to – get this – the wealthiest. That ultimately makes plain the real Republican philosophy of government.

There are three basic conceptions of government’s role in human affairs. Some believe it is properly a force for collective good. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the vision liberals propound today.

Others believe – and this is, of course, a deep strand in American political thought – that while government might indeed be used for good as well as ill, in practice it tends to reflect what Francis Fukayama has called the “stationary bandit” theory of the state: It is a coercive force for extraction and exploitation of the many by the few, and thus to be constrained wherever possible. And then there are those who do the extraction and exploitation and recognize government as the best institution for achieving that.

Republicans love to talk like they fall into the second category. The chief virtue of this health care bill is that it makes transparent that they actually comprise the third.

You can read the whole analysis, The GOP’s Health Care Shock, here.

Easy links in this update:

30 best reports on “Operational Excellence in Government

U.S. News & World Report: The Hollow Men and Parallel Universe of Trump-World

The GOP’s Health Care Shock

As always, I welcome your comments below!

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