The vast majority of Americans appear to have re-learned the long-standing political dictum, “Elections have consequences.” Voters turned out in record numbers for last month’s mid-term elections – not just those determined to send a message of “resistance” to President Donald Trump, but also those signaling their support. The run-up to and aftermath of these elections offered numerous opportunities for commentary online, in print, live, and on TV. So, in this update I’m providing a (multimedia!) synthesis:
The country is divided between those who benefit from the global, digital economy, and those who don’t.
The Rome, Italy, branch of the Aspen Institute unveiled its new-and-improved website the day before the election, and its launch prominently featured my piece, Two Americas and the lost center, which concluded:
One of these two nations clearly was winning the economic, cultural and political wars until recently; the other has predictably struck back with a vengeance. Both now believe, probably correctly, that they are in an existential struggle with the other where only one will survive.
There are, in short, two sides – but no center.
Democrats and progressives should be – but are not effectively – addressing the concerns of those left behind in this economy.
The weekend before the election, I was visited at my home by Bruce Hawker, a correspondent and producer for Australian TV traveling the US in the weeks leading up to the midterm election.
We’ll have to wait until early 2019, when Bruce’s documentary airs in Australia, to see exactly what I said (even I don’t recall). But I spoke on the same general theme a few days earlier at the University of Scranton, where I explained, in response to one question, my concern with progressives’ failure to address the economic anxieties of Trump voters. (As a bonus, here’s my 3-minute explanation of blockchain.)
Disaffected and economically disfranchised Americans have risen in revolt and seized political power on behalf of an illiberal and undemocratic ideology.
I wrote this piece for Aspenia Online, All Globalists Now, just after the election in response to President Trump’s closing theme framing the country’s choice as one between “nationalism” and “globalism”:
In sum, the supposedly-nationalist and anti-globalist movement is in fact global in scope and and transnational in organization. The foreign regimes that serve as its models and allies are the most violative of any today of the sovereignty and internal integrity of others. Their national cheerleaders, however, welcome these international models not only to guide but also, if necessary, to override US institutions in constructing a similar “nationalism”.
The print version of Aspenia is republishing this month my piece, Urbi et Orbi – previously published only in Italian – which similarly observes:
The tripartite division between producers, transformers and predators described above generated the same dynamic that we see in today’s populism, with the left trying to appeal to an urban middle class against an economically and politically predatory elite, with the conservative wing of that elite appealing, usually more successfully, to the producers in the exurban extractive economy by attacking the allegedly-parasitical professional classes.
Not surprisingly, this illiberal, anti-democratic movement is gaining and holding power by suppressing the exercise of democracy. My CNN debut came in this piece critiquing the Republicans’ increasing reliance on voter suppression as a means of holding onto power:
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg trenchantly observed in her dissent, however, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” It’s now also clear, to continue Ginsburg’s metaphor, that putting your umbrella away when it’s not raining, as Roberts would have it, is usually sufficient itself to provoke a cloudburst.
The majority of Americans, who are basically doing well, reject this ideology. History is on their side – but the country’s future could still go either way.
In The Wave Election, to be published by Aspenia later this month, I argue that “there is a slow-moving tide of history of which today’s events are merely a part – perhaps a frothing bubble, perhaps a cresting whitecap, on a larger, longer, slowly rolling wave.” The piece concludes with this warning:
The Trump phenomenon represents a powerful undertow running counter to the tide of history – a xenophobic reaction to an America moving in a more socially-liberal, more technology-centered, more globally-integrated and multicultural direction. That tide will keep rolling in, on larger and larger waves. But the undertow is always there, and can be deadly if you don’t pay it proper respect.
In the short term, I still give Trump a slightly better than 50-50 shot at re-election.
The day before the election, I moderated a panel of international experts in DC – as I had two years ago – to discuss what our election meant to others around the world. Virtually none of the foreign visitors in attendance expected Trump to be re-elected – while I did.
What do you think? As always, I look forward to your comments below.
And please check out the second annual Greater Good Gathering that I’m organizing in February in conjunction with Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and the American Academy of Political Science. Focusing on the ways that technology today can threaten a shared sense of “community” and the common good – or fulfill its original promise to help build them – the conference will feature tech executives, prominent journalists, leading academics on all aspects of the tech revolution from dating apps to cyber war, and top officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump Administrations. Register today, and spread the word!
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.
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.
The other night, just after finishing my piece that ran yesterday on what we can do about gun violence, I received an email from a student at Princeton University, where I’d given a talk two weeks ago. It began;
“Thanks so much for coming to Princeton, firstly! The discussion with you is one of the best events I’ve ever been to at Princeton – you felt really accessible, personable, and I, at least, felt like I could do anything afterwards.”
That’s probably the first time anyone found me particularly “accessible” or “personable.” But what I talked about at Princeton was the work I’m doing outside my consulting to respond to the changes I see in the world today through the “Greater Good” initiative I’ve discussed here a bit, and my related efforts to launch a “government business.” Unlike most people I know, who think we’ve descended into a second Dark Age, I believe we’re entering a Golden Age for the ability of us all individually to – in Gandhi’s phrase – be the change you want to see in the world. That’s why this student – and the others who hung around afterwards to talk with me about career pursuits – rightly took from my remarks the feeling that he “could do anything.”
My piece yesterday in US News (which was also picked up by MSNBC) in reaction to the Parkland shooting discusses the same phenomenon behind my optimism about our ability to act – if at the same time, indeed because of, my declining belief in traditional politics as the best route for doing so. In People, Not Politicians, Can Solve America’s Gun Problem, I note that, “not surprisingly, mere days after the massacre at their school, students from Parkland watched from the gallery as their state legislature voted down holding any debate whatsoever on assault weapons this year. There almost certainly will be no meaningful government action against gun violence.”
I’ve used my US News platform to argue for several years now that “governments everywhere are growing in impotence due to a host of tectonic global shifts,” and, to me, what’s happening now over guns proves the point: A minority of Americans representing a return to extractive economics and politics now holds virtually unchallenged political power in the US – and increasingly around the world – yet the majority, who live in a very different world economically and ideologically, are rising up to wrest power from them on this issue, led by the least powerful of all: children. My argument is that this effort will continue to fail politically – but that is irrelevant. It will succeed through non-governmental means – and I give numerous examples: consumer boycotts, disinvestment campaigns, voluntary home interventions, public shaming, moral opprobrium, information and education, even (God forbid!) research. “A previous generation of young Americans ended a war and ushered in an era of greater tolerance by changing society more than by changing politicians. That’s where attention needs to be focused.”
This ties into the Greater Good, the “government business,” and a new series I’m writing for a national publication on what “progressivism” or “liberalism” need to mean in the 21st Century. New technologies are making it increasingly difficult for centralized authorities to assert and maintain their dominance – reducing marginal costs, lowering barriers to entry, making it easier for individuals to act on their own, and virtualizing virtually everything. These same technologies also make it quicker and easier to aggregate individuals, metricize and monetize virtually everything, keep free-riders out and enforce commitments amongst those who opt in. This isn’t eliminating all “authority,” but it is disaggregating, distributing, and disrupting what authorities already exist. This will prove just as true in governance as in every other industry.
This poses tremendous challenges to social cohesion, collective action and public goods through the mechanisms that have governed our world for centuries. But those mechanisms haven’t always existed as they are today, and they won’t exist that way in the future. Meanwhile, these changes present tremendous new opportunities for social cohesion, collective action and public goods through new mechanisms – like the student-launched social ventures I talked about recently here, like the non-political social movement we’re building with the Greater Good initiative, and even the business I’m launching to allow people voluntarily to invest in progressive “public goods” from education to health care and day care to income-transfer programs.
I’ll be discussing these in more detail in my next update. Meanwhile, all these changes are making it increasingly easy for anyone to follow the famous George Bernard Shaw injunction, “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”
As always, I welcome your comments below.
PS: In case you missed them, here are my other pieces in the past two weeks:
– And History is Back is now available as the featured piece online from the latest Aspenia
To kick off the New Year in a new way, I need your input on a new initiative.
In coming weeks, I’ll be telling you about some new writing, teaching, and business activities. But all of these relate to my central concern that, in the years ahead, we need to think very differently about notions of common good, “public goods,” and governance. That’s where you come in.
A year or so ago, I pulled together a group from diverse backgrounds – government, politics, finance, non-profit, social venture, and technology – to brainstorm about these issues: With technology changing the ways we interact and make choices together as a community, a society, or even a planet, how can we define a new politics of common good beyond government? How do each of us pursue our commitment to this “greater good” – something bigger than our individual selves – in an increasingly atomized world?
What started as a small discussion group grew to over 100 on-going participants. And what interested them most was bringing even more people into this discussion – which produced the idea of a larger conference. That conference, the “Greater Good Gathering,” was held this fall.
Now, we need you.
The conference featured Martin Luther King III’s keynote address on “Doing Good in the 21st Century,” an opening panel led by former Delaware Governor Jack Markell on improving government today, experts on the future of democracy, and an exploration of how public and private sector innovation might solve the health care problem.
The heart of the conference was three panels thinking creatively across traditional categories of public, private and “social” enterprise:
One consisted of entrepreneurs behind for-profit (yes, for-profit) ventures to insure low-income families, to help families obtain public benefits, to help prisoners maintain family and community relationships, and to monitor the status of seniors living independently.
Another featured experts on how market forces are being tapped to increase social investment, shift “policy risk” from taxpayers to private investors, and induce large corporations to respond to issues like worker rights.
But perhaps the most enthusiastic group was the college students who had started self-sustaining enterprises to solve social problems:
– One student produces prosthetics for those in her native Viet Nam who have lost limbs from traffic accidents or landmines, at a fraction of market cost.
– Others started a business to speed the processing of rape kits.
– Another markets technology to help his fellow dyslexics with their reading.
– One uses food waste to produce insects that replace fish as chicken feed (reducing overfishing).
– Still another builds client relationship management software for homelessness service agencies.
These young people are truly inspiring – but, in the timeworn manner of entrepreneurs everywhere, they hadn’t set out to change the world, or to make a buck: They simply saw a problem and, instead of just asking why, asked “why not?” At one point, when I questioned the director of a social venture fund about what she thought the field would look like in a decade, her answer was that there would be no distinction between social enterprise and “normal” businesses: All businesses will be “social ventures” – promoting the greater good even while making a profit.
Organizing the conference, I was struck by how many people – venture capitalists, former White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, non-profit leaders and intellectual innovators – asked me to keep them “plugged in” in a way that implied that this wasn’t just a conference, or a one-time event: Something about this notion of pursuing the “greater good” really struck a chord. People are looking for new paths for making a difference, seeking the social relevance many used to look for in government … somewhere other than government.
People have suggested to me various forms this Greater Good Initiative could take:
– A think tank – or “institute” – to address these issues (my original intention).
– Smaller conferences, more frequently, in a variety of locations.
– “Franchising” the Greater Good concept to anyone, anywhere who wants to stage similar, local conversations – like TEDx – or building local organizations for people to meet and plan, like MeetUp groups.
– Building a virtual national community and ongoing conversation online.
– A political movement.
– A foundation.
– A venture fund to support young (or even not-so-young) entrepreneurs in developing sustainable solutions to societal challenges.
– Maybe all these things.
– Maybe something else entirely.
What’s the best answer? I don’t know. But I’d like your help in figuring it out: What I do know is that we won’t advance the greater good if we don’t advance it together. Please visit my blog, or email me, so you can share your ideas – and get “plugged in” as we move forward.
Quick Links – Conference Videos:
I wrote a few days ago that I’ve had an unusually fecund several weeks, churning out nine articles for four publications (plus the comments Tom Edsall quoted extensively in the New York Times), expanding my writing “footprint” to additional platforms to address increasing concerns about the direction we’re headed. I’d like to share with you what I’ve been writing lately – starting with my return this week to The Atlantic.
“It’s the Grandparents Stealing From the Grandchildren” – a title drawn from a conversation I actually once had with Kurt Vonnegut – addresses an issue I’ve been writing about since my “master’s thesis” at the Kennedy School: entitlements spending. The piece has harsh things to say about both parties’ approach – although it finds the Republicans most disingenuous (the piece reached #1 on The Atlantic within a few hours of its posting):
Speaker Paul Ryan announced that “we’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” even as he began negotiations with his Senate counterparts over exactly how much they’re gleefully going to increase the very same debt and deficit….
Which begs the question, why would we “reform” entitlements in a way that delays the changes until the problem they are supposedly intended to address will be largely history, imposing draconian cuts on the future? This amounts, purely and simply, to forcing our grandchildren both to pay for our profligacy today and our parsimoniousness tomorrow — or, if you prefer, our liberality toward ourselves and conservatism toward everyone else.
The other pieces published so far also have provoked strong disagreement across the political spectrum – which I hope means they’re making more of a contribution than usual.
For starters, in Why Donald Trump is the most successful president in nearly a century, I argued that, while “Trump is widely viewed as dangerously inept, disengaged, uninformed, uninterested in governing, devoid of meaningful policy objectives, and possibly unstable,” nonetheless “in a short period of time he has implemented more of his agenda, and more thoroughly remade American government and the country as a whole, than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.” To see my whole catalogue of reasons for this assertion, please read the article; yet, as I conclude, “None of this may be good. But it’s time to stop denying his success.”
Almost as if on cue, Trump and the Republicans achieved their greatest “success” to date in all-but-final enactment of their dream “tax cut” legislation. Test the Trickle Down Theory ridicules the economics behind the bill by asking whether any of its intended beneficiaries would be willing to take their cuts in IOU form: “If the GOP ‘supply-side’ theory is correct, those bonds ought to pay off bigly. If not, then they’ll be about as valuable as, say, a diploma from Trump University – but they also won’t then blow an additional $1.5 trillion hole in the national debt.”
A Hard Exit for the Rich puts aversion to taxes into the larger context of a radically changing world: “In coming years, technologies built on the internet, like the platform model and block chain (the technology underlying Bitcoin), will make it easier and easier for everyone – even the little people – to ‘secede and form a globally mobile republic, able to choose which jurisdiction they wish to operate under.’” And War on the Blue States is about more than what’s wrong with the tax bill. It’s about the widening gulf in America and, in particular, what I don’t think liberals heeded in 2016 and still aren’t heeding today:
Both sides of this increasingly-polarized divide see the other as trying to extirpate their way of life – and not inaccurately. Blue America spent the last eight years dictating both economic and cultural changes invalidating virtually every aspect of Red America. Liberals see all that as both righteous and benevolent – we’re both promoting better values and willing to help train them to be more like us. Yes, and that’s what the imperialists always say. Hence the Trump voters’ uprising. And now they’re getting back by imposing their values and destroying the arrogant elite’s culture and economy.
What that means for our politics – how liberalism needs to be modernized for a new era – is the theme of the first piece I wrote in November, The Constituencies of the 21st Century. It concludes, “New technologies are turning the global economy upside down, creating a stark worldwide division between winners and losers, and undermining the ability of the traditional nation-state to do anything about it…. These don’t demand that we move left or right. They demand that we move forward.”
As always, I welcome your comments.
– Are Your Fingers in Your Ears?
– It’s the Grandparents Stealing From the Grandchildren
– Why Donald Trump is the most successful president in nearly a century
– War on the Blue States
– Test the Trickle Down Theory
– A Hard Exit for the Rich
– The Constituencies of the 21st Century
In the past month, I’ve written a trifecta of articles on a diverse set of issues in the news – the cultural divide within the country, international relations, Puerto Rico’s needs. But they all have one thing in common: the destructive nature of Donald Trump. Here are the highlights – but first a reminder:
Check out the incredible line up of Speakers and register TODAY! Space is limited.
Let’s start with Puerto Rico, which I wrote about this week in US News & World Report. I’ve spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico in the last several years, working on the Commonwealth’s fiscal situation and economy. Puerto Rico offers – as did New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – an unusual opportunity for creative solutions, some of which I discuss in this article.
These will require resources. Yet Trump uttered “jaw-dropping comments in Puerto Rico itself” like, “It’s a great trip. Your weather is second to none,” while complaining that “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.” The headline on the piece, Trump’s Past, Puerto Rico’s Future, doesn’t quite lay on the irony as thickly as I’d intended, but here’s the main argument:
How did Trump recover from the unmitigated disaster of his own financial choices? By declaring bankruptcy, refusing to pay his bills and restructuring in ways that left him an income and everyone else with the debts. Instead of railing against the Puerto Ricans for their failure to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, in this instance Trump for once actually could profitably offer his preferred example for everything: himself.
… Puerto Rico needs a fresh chance to restructure operations, escape its debt, obtain massive new infusions of cash, and rebrand itself as a leader. And it needs all the rest of us to be complicit in that. Just as Donald Trump did.
This begins to get at the point that Trump’s personal brand of dysfunctionality both epitomizes and drives virtually all the spiraling challenges facing the country today. The State of Nation-States is a somewhat academic piece tackling “a point Trump made in passing” in his speech to the United Nations: “that, as he put it, ‘the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.’” This proposition is debatable because the original impetus for the nation-state “was to reduce violence at the international level … while giving nation-states explicit and unlimited control over violence within their borders – not simply policing against violence but wielding it against their own citizens however they see fit.” Until a year or so ago, most Americans and Europeans would have agreed with “circumscrib[ing] the rights of nations to do whatever they want to the peoples within their borders” – i.e., “human rights” – but global changes are making many more sympathetic to authoritarian regimes.
The new virtual economy leapfrogs borders and generates changes that are leaving many behind economically and undermining aspects of their lives that they until now have taken for granted. For those less globally connected, the threats – physical, cultural, religious and economic (as well as cosmopolites who don’t seem to mind all those) – all seem associated with territoriality. The traditional nation-state therefore appears to be their bulwark, forging an odd, new coalition between traditionalists in cutting-edge economies and repressive states with extractive economies – personified in the rise of Donald Trump.
That takes me to the piece I grappled with for weeks and rewrote multiple times in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s kulturkampf reaction to it – The Rise of Zero-Sum Politics – which concluded:
For all the Hitler comparisons, Trump is really more reminiscent of Mao: Besides seething resentment and authoritarianism, Mao’s most notable personality trait was a constant need to throw everything around him into chaos. Having fractured the Republican Party into its constituent parts and driven a wedge between them, Trump, with his unerring sense for disruption, now has embraced the opposition.
I ended with a perhaps implausible prediction: Eventually, “Trump will endorse some form of single-payer health care plan” – not because he supports the idea (he obviously has no clue on health policy), but rather because “it would wipe Obamacare off the books” and “rupture the Democrats as badly as he has already his own party.” We’ll see if I’m right.
As usual, I welcome your comments below!
Martin Luther King III, Harvard historian, “Top Global Thinker” on technology, state and local government innovators, established and rising social entrepreneurs – and you
The program for The Greater Good Gathering continues to expand and firm up. I wanted to let you know of new additions just this week – and encourage you to get your conference registration and hotel reservations in ASAP, while the Early Bird rates are still in effect.
Here are the headlines:
Conference Keynoter: The big news is that Martin Luther King III will deliver a keynote speech at the Saturday conference session, speaking on Doing Good in the 21st Century. In addition, Johnny J. Mack, former Chief Administrative Officer of the MLK, Jr. Center in Atlanta will moderate a Saturday panel on the future of economic justice.
Framing the Future: In what we hope will provide an interesting change-of-pace, a pair of very different thought-leaders will provide brief presentations and Q&A with attendees on the deeper issues that frame our entire discussion. In his latest book, Once Within Borders, Harvard historian Charles Maier tracks the epochal changes that have defined territories over five centuries and pays close attention to our present moment, asking in what ways modern nations and economies still live within borders and to what degree our societies have moved toward a post-territorial world. He’ll be followed by Dr. Kalev Hannes Leetaru, one of the leading innovators of the internet era, and one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, who will address where technology is taking government and the nation-state in the future.
Government Innovation: Some of the most innovative leaders in Rhode Island state government will be joining several of our panels, including Governor Gina Raimondo’s advisors on government innovation and Macky McCleary, a business-process innovator who now heads the state’s public utilities commission and formerly was director of business regulation. Governor Raimondo and Senate Sheldon Whitehouse, who just published a book on cleaning up the federal government, have also been invited to appear on the Friday dinner panel discussing the future of government, moderated by former Delaware Governor Jack Markell.
Social Venture Funders: The leaders of several different creative social venture funds – doing for social progress what venture capital did for technology – will be discussing how approaches to social change are quickly evolving. Kim Syman, Managing Partner of New Profit in Boston, and Kelly Ramirez, CEO of Social Enterprise Greenhouse in Providence, are incubating some of the leading creative solutions, both for-profit and not-for-profit, to a range of social challenges, and they’ll be telling us about what these are and what else they see on the horizon.
Innovative Entrepreneurs: We’re lining up a number of creative doers implementing business models to drive social change. These include established business leaders like Maximilian Weiner, who has founded a social enterprise in the Inclusive Insurance space that is providing low and moderate income Americans with free insurance – and rising stars who are current Brown students or recent graduates, like Stefanie Kaufman, the founder and Executive Director of Project LETS, which advocates for disability rights and creates inclusive communities for people with mental illness.
And please share this invitation.
It was an unusually busy August! I’d like to update you on a few goings-on – most importantly, the Greater Good Gathering that I described in my last update. This is the first annual “Greater Good” conference, Democracy, Citizenship, and the Greater Good: Charting a Path in Changing Times, part of a larger, long-term effort aimed at the future.
The Gathering is now set for October 20-22 (Friday evening through Sunday lunchtime) in Providence, Rhode Island. We are in the process of finalizing the program, with a fantastic lineup of speakers already confirmed, and other panelists we are waiting to confirm. Most importantly, the Greater Good Gathering official website is now live, where you can stay up-to-date on the program, register and book your hotel rooms at the historic Biltmore Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island, where the Gathering will be held.
As you’ll see, confirmed speakers already include a former governor, a law professor on cybersecurity advising the World Intellectual Property Organization, a nationally-recognized communications expert, award-winning advocates for their work addressing human trafficking, the CEO of a major health care reform organization, the author of the nation’s first “Medicaid-For-All” legislation, the first woman and youngest person ever to lead a major AFL-CIO labor federation, one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, and the co-founder of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics – among others.
We’ll be discussing:
-Public Sector Innovation: Can Government Be Saved?
-Defending Democracy & The Future of the Public Good
-Technology and Power: A History of the Future
-Up and Coming Innovators
-Public Good Beyond the Public Sector
-Application & Illustration: Health Care
There will also be plenty of time for networking and mentoring. Conference registration includes a welcome dinner, and healthy full breakfasts and lunches, at the Biltmore Hotel. Space is limited, so please register today.
Meanwhile, in the last month, our country has been fraying in ways unseen since the civil rights and Vietnam War era. As I wrote a few weeks ago in Government Untethered: “Some people find frightening the notion that countries as we know them – including our own – are on the verge of splitting apart. Others find it crazy. Scrolling through my news feed on a single, representative day last week … I found it simply to be the new normal.” Concluding with the story of the Venezuelan opposition’s attempts to create essentially a parallel, virtual democracy in the face of an increasingly-authoritarian government, I asked whether, in the long term,
a government, and its army, [can] hold territory where it has lost large swaths of the population? As people increasingly find the means to unite and construct self-governing mechanisms outside of “government,” can they actually opt-out of governments that don’t represent them? That’s a proposition that Venezuelans will be testing in coming weeks…. This isn’t just esoteric futurism anymore: It’s the daily news.
But, despite the new-technology veneer, all of this has roots that go back to the very beginnings of human civilization. In The Age-Old Rural Conflict, I wrote about the famous story of Cain and Abel as allegory for the triumph of settled agriculture – the New Economy of its day – over pastoralism. Cain is then portrayed in the Bible as, not coincidentally, moving on from murdering his herdsman brother to founding a major city.
The Cain and Abel story reflects a particular incident – the transition to settled agriculture and, as a result, urbanism – in the long history of technological change killing off prior economic, and attendant cultural and religious, arrangements. Such transitions aren’t peaceful, and they haven’t ended. The resulting sense of threat and hostility can reach Biblical proportions.
I’m thinking about both Good and Evil more right now, as I’ll be teaching a new course about them – called “Deep Policy” – this winter at Union Theological Seminary. Instead of talking about what policies might best address the challenges we face in such areas as crime control, inequality, discrimination, repression, environmental destruction, or a host of others, the course will ask, What drives these challenges to begin with and what – if anything – can we do to prevent them? To do this, we will draw upon and attempt to synthesize a wide range of disciplines, from theology and philosophy to chaos and game theory, ethics to evolutionary biology, psychology to economics – and, of course, public policy. In short, we will take an interdisciplinary approach to how wrong occurs – and how to right it.
I’ll have more on these subjects – and a few other upcoming conferences I’m organizing – in future updates.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below.
Today I’m happy to announce the new initiative I’m proudest of – and to ask for your help and involvement.
On October 19-21, I’ll be cosponsoring with my undergrad alma mater, Brown University, the first annual “Greater Good” conference, Democracy, Citizenship, and the Greater Good: Charting a Path in Changing Times, part of a larger, long-term effort aimed at the future.
Several years ago, my friend Tracy Sefl urged me to think about a fellowship at the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which I had attended, or at UChicago, where I teach. That got me thinking, however, about what such an Institute might look like at Brown, where I’d also taught several years earlier in the public policy program. I liked the IOP concept of bringing fellows of diverse backgrounds to campus to interact with each other, permanent faculty, and students in a robust and creative way. It fit well with Brown’s basic interdisciplinary approach – and, given the collapsing boundaries I see ahead between “government” and non-governmental entities, I felt “public policy” studies should embrace a far wider range of subjects than the typical MPP curriculum.
I began to think about an “Institute” bringing together scholars across all disciplines to ponder how their fields could better address issues of social impact … of the “greater good.” I particularly want to encourage college students to think seriously about how their eventual lives and intellectual pursuits could contribute to the greater good, whatever their professional goals. And my own interests have gravitated in recent years away from contemporary public policy questions, like how best to means-test entitlements (the subject of my “master’s thesis” at the K-School) toward deeper factors producing the recurring tragedies, wrongs, and follies of human history (on which I’m piloting a course this coming winter, as I’ll discuss in a future update): I’m looking to create a place to think longer, deeper, and with others on these issues instead of just the press of today’s policy challenges.
The result was a proposal for something tentatively entitled the “Brown Institute for the Greater Good,” or BIGG. While trying to figure out how to make BIGG a reality, something else occurred.
When I merged my consulting firm, Public Works, into Sequoia Consulting Group last year, I intended, besides expanding my teaching and writing, to take the stuff I’ve been teaching and writing about and launch an effort to make new models of sustainable public goods work in the here-and-now.
So, last summer, I wrote up a concept paper, and asked a few friends with diverse backgrounds – in social ventures, finance, technology, non-profits, public policy – to spend an afternoon sitting around my house brainstorming how to turn the crazy idea of a “government biz” into an actual, economically-sustainable business venture. I invited ten people, figuring that three or four might agree to help me as a personal favor; to my surprise, they all wanted to come join the discussion. Given the enthusiastic response, I invited a few more. And a few more. Until we wound up with a 25-person, two-day “retreat” at my home.
Some of my former students came and presented papers they wrote for my course, on for-profit business models to bring healthy meals to food deserts or create private peace-keeping forces. Congressman Dwight Evans described his efforts to bring creative financial, education and nutrition programs to poorer areas of Philadelphia. Kyle Zimmer talked about the self-sustaining model of her organization, First Book, that has helped millions of poor kids across America. And a colleague of fellow Brown alums Laura Germino and Gregg Asbed gave a presentation on the market-driven private enforcement system they created to protect farmworkers.
I set aside the last hour for everyone to name the single best idea to come out of all this. I thought people would suggest I focus my “government biz” first on college affordability, or health care. Instead, everyone focused more on the broader discussion and wanted to make this gathering into an annual conference on the “greater good.”
So, while I’m still working on launching the “government biz” (more on that in a future update), I also approached Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service, which readily agreed to host and co-sponsor this event as the first small step toward my eventual BIGG goal. And the rest, as they say is – or hopefully will be – history.
The conference agenda is below. We’d love to have you join us for 44 hours of exciting dialogue in Providence this October 19-21. And we need your input on who else you know (or know of) who would like to come or ought to be invited to participate in this endeavor. Please help us make this conference both “greater” and “good” by getting involved in whatever way you can!
As always, I look forward to hearing from you.
The mechanisms by which societies govern themselves – how they define, create, promote, and defend the “Greater Good” – will be increasingly refashioned and dispersed, and increasingly “multi-polar,” in the 21st Century. Technological advances are changing the ways that people can aggregate with or separate from others, thus changing the nature of “society” and “government.” They are reducing marginal costs and creating new markets, making some things profitable that used to be unprofitable, and others unprofitable that used to be highly profitable – making it possible for some things that used to be thought of as the proper domains of private enterprise to become potentially collective, social or public activities, and vice versa. They’re reducing the importance of location, and to some extent time; they’re changing the relative value of tangible and intangible resources.
All of these changes are profoundly changing all aspects of human society and culture, on both the level of the lived daily experiences of individuals and the level of societies, nations, and the world itself. The “Greater Good” conference is a part of addressing these larger concerns. Our interest is in looking deeply and interdisciplinary, at how the means for addressing and promoting the Greater Good may be changing in today’s world – and that includes the “technology” of how we, as multiple individuals, collectively interact and govern ourselves – and how to address and adapt to those changes.
It thus conceives of “public policy” as something potentially broader than governmental action – in the sense of public entities or nation-states – and looks at “governance” of the human enterprise as potentially encompassing non-governmental, for-profit, non-territorial, non-profit, and as-yet-undreamed-of mechanisms. Our interest is what such changes are coming in the 21st Century, how they will increase or decrease the possibilities for human progress and well-being, and – crucially, in distinguishing this from other “futurism” discussions – what we should and (because of such changes themselves) can do to either “ride this wave” or “bend this curve” so as best to promote the Greater Good.
Day 1: Thursday, October 19, 2017 – Breaking Things Apart
6:00 – 10:00 Welcome Event and Dinner
6:00 – 6:30 Reception w/ drinks and hors d’oeuvres
6:30 – 8:30 Dinner
BLOCK I: DEMOCRACY
6:30- 7:00 Introductory Remarks
Eric B. Schnurer & Mathew Johnson, PhD
7:00-8:30 Opening Debate
Defending Democracy & the Future of the Public Good
Brown President Christina Paxson has defined “Defending Democracy” as the challenge for Brown University to face in 2017. But what does this mean? What are the threats that we’re “defending” against today? Political dysfunction – ideological polarization, gerrymandering, money politics, gridlock – and resulting public disaffection? Rising authoritarianism at home and worldwide? Technology (plus the above actors) undermining the mechanics of, and faith in, the institutions of democracy? Technology imposing an undemocratic and non-private world on all of us?
These are all important – but also subsets of the larger changes that are changing the nature of societal governance in such a way that what we think of as “democracy” – collective decisions made through free and broadly open political mechanisms – is declining in efficacy. But before we can say that democracy is in danger and needs defending, we need to think more about what “democracy” means (is it just a political concept?) and what is the greater good we aim to achieve through democracy? Maybe “democracy” is declining or expiring in some ways, but expanding in other, newer ways. Technology is “democratizing” force, authority, and many other forms of power: To what extent does the decline of “political democracy” matter if it’s (and is it?) being offset by the rise of “non-political” forms of democracy? These are all questions we’ll explore in this opening debate as we prepare to address the future of “the Greater Good.”
8:30-10:00 Guests welcome to remain and network
Day 2: Friday, October 20, 2017 – Looking in Depth
BLOCK II: TECHNOLOGY
9:00 – 9:30 Keynote Address
Technological Change, Government, and the Greater Good
Technological change is what’s driving the “future of government” and the demise of current governance structures. Technology is changing the most profound aspects of humanity – and human society. It’s not simply changing the nature of politics within the existing governance paradigm – it’s changing the governance (and thus “Greater Good”) paradigm. So, what is all this technological change? What are the implications for “government” – or, more broadly, for collective and societal efforts to promote the Greater Good? And is it good or bad? We cannot talk about the Greater Good in the future without understanding these changes, which means understanding these technologies.
9:30-11:30 Panel One
Big Data: Power, Peril & Possibilities
Data are increasingly the currency of 21st Century power. Control over data is opening up tremendous possibilities for advance – and abuse – in both the public and private sectors: What does privacy mean in a world of activity trackers, Smart Houses, and social media? How is data being used to advance public welfare; how are we putting ourselves at risk? What does it mean to have data in private hands, and do we know how it is being used to promote both public welfare and private profits? Technology also has tremendous potential to drive new and inspiring ways of addressing longstanding systemic problems; in this panel, we also will hear from leaders in Brown’s efforts to make data more useful in delivery of government services, and technologists and thinkers in government who must balance public-sector gains against private/individual concerns.
11:30 – 1:00 Lunch Break
BLOCK III: INNOVATION AND PUBLIC GOOD
1:00- 2:30 Panel Two
Public Sector Innovation: Can Government Be Saved?
Government, like any other sector, is increasingly feeling the pressure of efficiency and the drive toward streamlined services. At the same time, budget pressures and hiring freezes have led to more and more services traditionally offered by the government being delivered by non-public providers. Before we turn, in the third session, to the role of non-public entities in providing public goods, this session will examine current public sector innovation; efforts to improve governmental service provision; and the tensions between public- versus private-sector provision in terms of efficiency, client orientation, service delivery, and doing more with less.
We’ll explore both what are the opportunities, and challenges, in having government face the same drivers as the private sector – and, the flip side, as private ventures increasingly assume public functions, how do we maintain public oversight? What are the tradeoffs of efficiency and democratic accountability, of equity and market forces? Issues include outsourcing and its oversight; streamlining and waste reduction; metrics and “pay for performance”; and the role of technology in enhancing government performance.
2:30- 3:00 Break
3:00 – 4:45 Panel Three
Public Good Beyond the Public Sector
Technology, and related changes in economics and ideologies, are changing the ability of governments to deliver public goods and shape social progress. The Trump Administration – and most governments at the state level – are actively taking a hatchet to government in ways that are likely to have longer-term ramifications. So, in the Trump era, a discussion about non-governmental options for pursuing the public good and the ends of “public policy” is even more essential and immediate. How might progressive values, social progress, and public goods be promoted and pursued in a Brave New World where governments are in retreat? How might we achieve the same ends through non-governmental – for-profit, non-profit, social venture, and as-yet-unimagined – ways?
This session will focus on finding new models to make “doing good” happen on its own, rather than just through remediative efforts like government programs or traditional charity, which technology is making that both necessary (as it destroys traditional social governance models) and possible (as it creates new capabilities to bring people together, to monetize and capture benefits, to coordinate and incentivize). In fact, all sorts of entities are increasingly finding ways to effect long-term change for the Greater Good, including using technology in smart and unique ways to create social innovations.
4:45-5 Closing Remarks and Thematic Wrap-Up:
Alan Harlam, Director of Social Innovation,Swearer Center for Public Service
5:00-6:00 Reception/Social Networking
6:00-onward Dinner on your own
Day 3: Saturday, October 20, 2017 – Putting It All Together
9:00 – 10:00 Networking Breakfast
BLOCK IV: APPLICATION & ILLUSTRATION: Health Care
10:00 – 11:15 Panel Four
We will draw the the conference themes together – the changing nature of democracy and public policy in the face of technological change, and the resulting emerging responses in not just the public but also the private and “third” sectors – through their application in a specific policy area: in this case, the issue dominating the US political system in 2017, health care. We will discuss possible public policy alternatives to the abandonment of Obamacare and a federal role – as well as the ability (and, in fact, increasing reality) of innovative, Greater Good-oriented insurers and providers – not just government – to drive these changes through the market.
BLOCK V: CONCLUSION
11:15 – 12:30 Up and Coming Innovators
This session is an opportunity to hear from students and recent graduates whose innovations have been making waves. They are thinking beyond simple tax structures and are examples of the future of public good innovation – optimistic thinking that builds corporate responsibility into the business model from the ground up.
12:30 – 2:00 Closing Interactive Discussion over Lunch
Panel moderators will participate in a reflective dialogue about the themes of the conference. What questions arose in the various panels that remain unanswered? What ideas sparked further thinking? What synergies were created? What do you hope people will carry forward?